Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Rory Gilmore, Hermione Granger, and what happens when clever girls grow up

While I wasn’t able to watch the Gilmore Girls revival over Thanksgiving, I spent the following Saturday on the couch with a friend, bingeing on all four episodes. During the run of the show, I’d usually found Lauren Graham’s Lorelei the more interesting character, as she juggled romantic relationships, raising Rory, and her inn-owning ambitions along with her rebellious and often immature nature. Rory, a book smart good girl, had her own paradoxes – the relationship with bad boy Jess; sleeping with married ex Dean – but her essential nature was a person who appreciated systems, who figured them out and figured how to be successful within them. This is the type of person who does well in school, who ingratiates herself with her biggest enemy, and who attends an Ivy League college.

Or maybe Hogwarts.

Rory may not be a witch, but she has quite a bit in common with Hermione Granger, another straight-A student with questionable parentage. Hermione was more rebellious than Rory, but then again, she had to be. Voldemort wasn’t moving in on Chilton or Yale; Rory’s biggest rebellion was dropping out of Yale and moving into Richard and Emily’s pool house. But at the end of the series, she graduated from Yale and spurned Logan’s proposal in order to cover Senator Obama’s campaign for president. Similarly, after helping Harry vanquish Voldemort, Hermione went back to Hogwarts for her final year.

This year, fans were lucky enough to be reunited with both young women. Rory is now 32, and Hermione is in her late 30s in the Rowling-approved play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Unfortunately, adulthood has been rough for both women.

During the run of the Gilmore Girls series, I never bought Rory as a future journalist. A journalism major myself, I noted that the people around me were obsessed with current events and a lot more aware of the outside world than the typical college student. (This is also why I never became a journalist.) For all her pop-culture references, Rory spent a lot of time in her own head, reading famous novels and enjoying isolated Stars Hollow. Even though Mitchum Huntzberger was supposed to be a bad guy for telling Rory he didn’t think she was cut out to be a journalist, I agreed with him.

So I wasn’t too surprised to see Rory floundering as a freelance journalist, a career that requires a person to go beyond pre-set rules and systems, to flout convention, to question and probe and examine beyond what is presented as truth. Even so, what took her so long? When we last saw Rory in 2007, she was primed for an explosive career. As a member of the pool covering Obama, she would have become part of the White House press corps after he was elected. If she had been cut out for journalism, that path easily would have led to her becoming the next Christiane Amanpour. And if not, the contacts she made could have led her to the business side of publishing. Instead, despite her “Talk of the Town” piece in the New Yorker, Rory’s a mess. She’s nowhere near the smart, determined girl who had to choose between Harvard and Yale.

Which brings me to Hermione, who might have faced the same decision after graduating Hogwarts. In Cursed Child, Hermione is the Ministry of Magic. But she’s a bad one, an administrator who is so careless with an illegal time turner that two below-average teenage wizards are able to crack her spell and find it. (I won’t get into the canon-violation of time travel rules that were carefully spelled out in Prisoner of Azkaban.) Characters constantly talk over her and treat her as an impediment rather than as the cleverest witch of her generation. And in alternate time lines where she does not marry Ron, she becomes a complete mess. Of course the cleverest witch of her time would be nothing without a man! Poor Professor McGonagall is stripped of her own cleverness, also becoming only an impediment.

For the girls who grew up loving these characters, what does it say that they fail to become fully functioning adults? For women who appreciated them as girls and hoped to see them equally successful as women, the disappointment goes beyond the field of entertainment. Fictional role models are just as important as real-life role models. When the writers who created these characters cannot see their clever girls growing into successful adults – when their stories are no longer as important as the stories of the men in their lives, or the sons of these men – where does that leave their fans?

Like the rest of us, watching as the smartest woman of her generation wins the popular vote by nearly three million, and is forced to watch an orange clown ascend to the most powerful office of the free world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My Pitch for Pitch!

I watch way too much TV, which is one of the reasons I’m behind on my current novel and I haven’t updated my blog in months. Unfortunately it looks like I may be getting back an hour, because my favorite show of the new season isn’t as universally loved as it should be. Do you love shows about strong women? Do you love shows with some soapy elements? Do you love shows about sports? Then you should be watching Pitch.

Pitch revolves around Ginny Baker, the first woman to make it to the MLB in a fictional version of the San Diego Padres. (This is not a far-fetched development, as there are already young women pitching in baseball programs at the college level.) Ginny is 23; she was drafted out of high school; she’s beautiful and African-American. She’s more than a baseball player; she’s a symbol that women can accomplish anything. Her first start was in a sold-out stadium, with eager young girls waving signs with her name. Not surprisingly, she balked – literally and figuratively. How can she play her game and live her life when she's a symbol for half the country?

But Pitch is about more than Ginny and it’s about more than baseball. Like Friday Night Lights, a show to which it’s been favorably compared, Pitch is about the characters and relationships between them as the show explores what it takes to get to the top and stay there. Numerous flashbacks show Ginny’s relationship with her dead father, who was killed in an accident with a drunk driver the night Ginny pitched her high-school team to the state championship. Bill Baker had made it to the minors and dreamed of having a son follow in his footsteps. But Ginny was the one with the golden arm, and guiding her to the pros became the focus of his life, as he sacrificed his marriage and Ginny’s childhood.

The series also explores the relationship between Ginny’s best friend and teammate, Blip, as he navigates the pull between his home life and baseball fame. Then there’s veteran catcher Mike Lawson – Ginny had his poster on her wall growing up – who provides Ginny with guidance but whose body is aging out of the game. Mike is having a secret affair with Ginny’s agent Amelia, who sometimes is more of a mother to Ginny than her actual mother, whom Ginny caught cheating on her father when she was twelve years old. And then there’s Oscar, the Padres’s GM who’s in the middle of his own divorce, trying to save his job while running a losing team. Ginny’s ex-boyfriend Trevor is a catcher on another major league team; she dumped him when he didn’t quit the game as he’d planned.

So lots of opportunity for good, soapy stuff.

But what ties all these characters together is the theme of how hard it is to get to the top of your game and stay there. Ginny didn’t get to the majors through hard work and talent alone – she got there by working harder than just about every man in the league. And while the sexism that greets her is constant and sometimes overt, it’s more of a threatening rain cloud than a violent thunderstorm.

It’s like Friday Night Lights. It’s like Nashville in the baseball world. It has a female lead character. (She’s not Connie Britton; she has more the bite of Olivia Pope than the bleeding heart of Tammi Taylor/Rayna James.) It features minority actors in many roles. Why aren’t more people watching? (On the other hand, we didn’t get a lot of viewers for those shows, either. Natch.)

I never played baseball (I played softball for a season or two. I was terrible.). But my son plays. I’ve had a front seat to his struggles… and often that front seat was the car seat, as I drove him to practices, games, lessons, showcases to different states, and college visits. (I even wrote a book based on the early years, KEEPING SCORE. You can buy it here.)

You don’t need to know the infield fly rule in order to appreciate this show. It does help to have an appreciation for the fact that following a dream takes hard, hard work. And achieving the dream isn’t the end of the story. Ginny is the first female professional baseball player. Only seven hundred or so people play baseball at the major league level. Her hard work is worth following. I am particularly hopeful that the show will feature flashbacks to her junior and senior years of high school, when she’d be going on college visits and taking part in Perfect Game showcases. Which college did she commit to before she was drafted? (Most top baseball players commit to colleges their sophomore or junior years of high school. Since they are not draft-eligible until the end of their senior year of high school, no top player puts off committing in the hopes of getting drafted.)

Pitch is on Fox, Thursday nights at 9. Originally the network was going to hold off till the spring, but with Scandal on hiatus due to Kerry Washington’s new baby, they thought Scandal’s viewers would be attracted to this show. Unfortunately, they seem to be watching Notorious instead. The fall debut works nicely with the excitement of post-season baseball, but I think a Wednesday at 10 slot – the old Nashville airing – would have worked better.

Remember how TV fans lamented that they hadn’t found Friday Night Lights until it was too late? Don’t make the same mistake with Pitch!

Monday, August 22, 2016

How to Be an Adult

Back-to-school photos are popping up all over Facebook. From my own newsfeed, the youngest celebrating his first day at kindergarten while the oldest her senior year in college. Tomorrow, my son – who refused college photos but sent me a picture of his Capitol Hill ID badge when he was interning this summer – jets off for his first year of graduate school. This generation of kids, parented by us so-called “helicopter parents,” should be the most prepared young adults ever to tackle the real world. But last night I came home to a sinkful of dirty dishes and a 22-year-old who informed me he didn’t know which ones should be washed and which ones put in the dishwasher. (To be fair, his 49-year-old father expresses befuddlement at this as well.) I was, needless to say, surprised: This is a young man who had his own apartment the last two years of college, who easily traverses the Washington, D.C. Beltway; who flies on his own and rents cars. (I didn’t check off those last two items till I was in my 30s.) Obviously I had taken his mastery of these steps as proof that he had mastered the ones beneath them. I was wrong.

And I’m not the only parent missing an item or two from my pre-nest-push-out check list. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. are filled with articles written by Millennials complaining about being an adult, not feeling like an adult, being tired of “adulting,” etc. It’s interesting that this generation sees adult as a verb – an action that be started or stopped – rather than a noun, a state of being.

My fellow helicopter parents, we did this.

We felt sorry for our incredibly busy children, who had demanding school schedules, travel sports, and a plethora of “volunteer” commitments, required both by exclusive colleges and public and private school graduation requirements. (Ask a Gen Xer what they had to do to get into the University of Maryland College Park, and weep at the answer.) Our kids were only getting five hours of sleep, for pete’s sake! Sure, we could have taken away their smart phones, but maybe they really were texting about homework, not sexting. So we cooked their dinners and didn’t ask for help with the dishes. We did their laundry. We drove them to school so they could catch up on homework or sleep.

And now they are college graduates and looking wide-eyed at dirty dishes, not to mention paying their own way by working real jobs that offer low pay and only two weeks of vacation a year. How, they ask, will they spend a month in Italy with only two weeks of vacation?

So they apply to graduate school, and put off the “adult” conversation for another two to four years. Perhaps by the time they’re too old to be on their parents’ health insurance policy, they will feel like full-fledged adults.

But probably not.

So if you’re like me, and you somehow assumed that your offspring’s incredible grasp of current affairs meant that he also knew how to close the lid on a top-loading washer, I’m offering a list of milestones that every son and daughter should reach before moving out of the house for good. (If they don’t know how to do these things, that doesn’t mean they get to stay forever.) In order to truly be considered adults, they should be able to:

 Grocery shop for balanced meals
 Cook simple meals and follow recipes for more complicated ones
 Know what to do and who to call if in a car accident
 The rules of tipping
 Keep a relatively clean home
 Routinely wash sheets and towels
 Do laundry regularly
 Pay their own bills
 Pay off credit cards every month, or hold only modest balances
 Drink only moderately during celebratory outings, and plan ahead so that driving isn’t an issue
 Make own doctor and dentist appointments and regularly manage preventive car
 Use birth control every time
 Have a realistic picture of their friendships, work relationships and romantic relationships
 RSVP appropriately
 Own up to mistakes (i.e., speeding tickets, broken appliances) and offer restitution
 Solve simple problems without needing help
 Spend a day working and taking care of themselves without whining about “adulting.”

Before you send your child out into the big, wild world, make sure he/she can handle the items on this list.

That is, assuming you can handle them yourself.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Character or Plot Device: Me Before You (Warning: Spoilers)

Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You is a New York Times bestselling book and a blockbuster movie. It’s also arguably the most controversial piece of fiction of the year. Me Before You is about British lost girl Louisa Clarke, who takes a job as a caretaker to quadriplegic Will Traynor. Lou and Will fall in love, but their relationship isn’t enough to keep him from going through with his plan to kill himself, at a special facility in Switzerland created just for the suicidal.

Advocates for the disabled have been less than pleased.

When the book first came out in early 2013, it was well received and noncontroversial. Moyes’s fans are a loyal lot, as are fans of women’s fiction in general. The book was so popular that Moyes wrote a sequel, After You.

Then the movie came out. And the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan.

As a writer, I was dismayed. I would never want one of my characters to be seen as representative for everyone who looked like her. And with diversity in books a strong topic in publishing circles, the subtext seems to be that unless you’re a member of a particular class, you shouldn’t feature characters in that class in your writing. In Moyes’s case, Will wasn’t just a particular character, he was a representative of every quadriplegic in the world, and since he did not want to live, Moyes was saying that quadripledgics’ quality of life was so low, that none of them should want to live either. (This wasn’t a point of view I had picked up in the book, which is Louisa’s first person account.) To me, this is a very scary implication – but one that mirrors our society. After all, every time a white man is in the news, he is judged for his actions alone. But a woman, a minority, or a Muslim breaks a law, and he or she is a symbol for every member of his/her gender, race or religion. So Will, a disabled character in a medium that rarely features disabled characters, is a symbol for all disabled people – and not necessarily a flattering one.

I read these criticisms with a heavy heart. A YA novel I’m working on features a morbidly obese teenage girl. Another one I’ve outlined stars a bi-racial teen. Are these characters or symbols? Will I be judged if they are not perfect?

And then I saw the damn movie.

While the movie Me Before You is just as much Louisa’s story as the book Me Before You, there is an impact to seeing certain elements play out on a huge screen rather than in words. Of course Moyers described Will as gorgeous, living in a castle, wealthy beyond measure, brilliant. But it’s one thing to read those words – Louisa’s words – and another to see him for yourself. And in the film, Will seems to have an amazing life. He has two parents who adore him (in the book, they were at odds and his father was having an affair), a funny, reliable male nurse/aide who’s always there, a van to drive him around, a beautiful living area, and a huge TV with lots of DVDs to watch. And then he has Louisa. They fall in love, but it doesn’t make a difference – Will is determined to kill himself, and nothing changes his mind. (I assume psychologists were brought on off-screen, and anti-depressants were involved.) In one scene, Will describes his favorite Parisian restaurant. Louisa wants to go, but Will shoots her down. He wants to remember it – himself – as he was, and not have to worry about his wheelchair not fitting under the table.

The message seems to be there’s no amount of wealth or love that can make up for living in a less-than-perfect body. Yes, Will’s nurse tells Louisa that he’s in pain, and sometimes he can hear Will screaming. (This is never shown.) He has a quick bout with pneumonia. But overall, his life looks worth living. No wonder advocates for the disabled were furious. Will wasn’t a character at all – he was just a plot device.

I am a firm believer of that old writers’ saying, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” In other words, stories are stories, characters are characters, and messages belong in telegrams. But I also find myself questioning some of Moyers’s choices (as I did when I reviewed an earlier book, The Girl You Left Behind. If she had made different ones, would the result be more palatable?

For instance, the choice to make Will come from a wealthy family. Perhaps Moyers chose this so that Will’s desire to kill himself isn’t a result of the incredible cost of care. Had Will’s family been poor or middle class, it would have been a different story – and perhaps the money wouldn’t have been there to hire Louisa. But by making Will wealthy, she made his life easier, and his decision to end it less understandable.

Then there’s the choice to make Will an investment banker rather than an athlete. Although Will is an avid weekend warrior, he works at a desk from 9-5. This is a puzzling choice from Moyers – after all, Will already came from a wealthy family, so it’s not like he needed that hedge fund money to fund his castle. Moreover, Moyers based Will on a real-life rugby player who went to this Swiss facility after becoming paralyzed. It is easier to understand how a professional athlete would see his life being over than a business executive, even if that executive enjoyed kite sailing. (And truthfully, advocates for the disabled were just as angry at the end of Million Dollar Baby.)

Another odd choice was the character of Louisa’s boyfriend Patrick, a personal trainer who trained for marathons in his spare time. This guy was such a bore, it was no wonder Louisa would rather spend time with Will. What was Moyers trying to say by making Will’s foil so obviously physical? That being able-bodied is no guarantee that a person is worth loving? Or that being disabled is so awful that it’s better to be with a boorish personal trainer?

Finally, there was Moyers’s commitment to not giving Louisa the standard happy ending, which I can accept. But why not have Will die of pneumonia after deciding to live for this woman he’d fallen in love with? That would give a sad, ironic ending while showing a disabled character working through emotional issues and choosing to live.

As writers, our job is to tell stories, not send messages. Yet we have an equal responsibility to make sure our characters are fully rounded, and go beyond symbols. While Moyers has no requirement to make any character a hero, she – and all of us – need to create characters that are more than just plot devices. Maybe love isn’t always enough. But if it’s not going to be, the readers need to understand why.

Monday, June 20, 2016

When Perfect is the Enemy of Good

As writers and critical readers, we talk a lot about the conundrum of the unlikeable female protagonist (those unlikeable male protagonists never seem to cause worry). Reviewers are quick to mention if and why the protagonist isn’t someone they’d “like to be friends with,” and even established writers sometimes get the note to make their heroine nicer somehow.

Strangely enough, readers don’t seem to mind them – at least not as the stars of thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

Lately, though, in my reading – and even my TV-watching – I find myself grappling with the opposite problem: heroines that are just so darn likeable, they’re perfect. These are women who honestly seem to exist without flaws. They never lose their tempers. They never have an unkind thought toward anyone. They always do the right thing. I spend my reading time with them wondering when the hell they are finally going to blow up, or at least do something interesting.

Last week, I was having dinner with a good friend and fellow fan of the TV show Nashville. We agreed that while we still liked her, the character of Rayna – and the show itself – was a lot more interesting when Rayna had flaws. Now she is absolutely perfect, always making the right decisions, never getting too angry, and always being right in the end. (This last point reminded me a little of Kate Walsh’s Addison Montgomery in Private Practice, but at least Addison’s infallible medical judgment was tempered by the fact that her personal life was a constant mess.)

I won’t name the guilty books, but this point hit me as I read Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake over the weekend. Lippman’s protagonist, a prosecutor named Lu, is very smart and hard-working. She is also extremely competitive, to a point where it has cost her friends and gotten her into trouble. This flaw (which may not have been a flaw if Lu were a guy) made the character so much more interesting than she would have been if she were perfect. It made her human to me. It also illustrated for me how closely a character’s strengths and flaws are related. Of course a smart person is going to be competitive, or smug, or arrogant. It’s the opposite side of the same coin.

Fan fiction writers have long had a term for that perfect character – a “Mary Sue.” (Legend has it that she first appeared in Star Trek fan fiction, as the daughter of Jim Kirk, lover of Spock, amazing space pilot, etc. So, yes, fan fiction is older than the internet. Way older.) “Mary Sue” has outgrown the fan fiction world, and is a shorthand for any character (mostly female) that is too good to be true. And yet, even with the pejorative, more writers are falling into this trap with their female protagonists. (At least the ones I read this past week are.)

Sometimes our protagonists are an extension of ourselves, and sometimes we are blind to our own flaws. I know that I don’t have any, for instance. Okay, sometimes I care too much. (If you don’t know what your flaws are, ask one of your siblings.) But our flaws draw people to us just as much as our strengths do. Use them to develop a well-rounded protagonist.

Then maybe she’ll be called “unlikeable.”

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Chapter One

It’s been an exciting few weeks for this particular writer in paradise. I got an agent, finished major changes to my work in progress (I’ll be hearing from my online critique group tomorrow), had a producer-friend option an old screenplay of mine, and watched my son graduate college and head off to DC.

New chapters beget new chapters, and in this case, it means it’s time to start a few myself. (The time may be short, however, depending on the changes my agent wants and changes my critique group recommends on two separate manuscripts.) I have a new script and a new novel I’m working on. Yay!

Not yay. Even though I have a detailed outline for the novel and a general outline for the script, I’m struggling. New beginnings means struggling to find the voice. It means barreling through small scenes that are absolutely necessary to hold the story together but are difficult to write without boring me to death. Getting the words out feels like pulling out fingernails.

Most people probably think that if you’re a writer, that you enjoy writing. Maybe other writers do. Stephen King, for instance. He writes every single day, even on Christmas. He probably really enjoys it.

I like having written. I like going quickly through a finished manuscript, recognizing the errors, and making notes in the margins about how to fix it. I especially like it when I can do that to my own manuscripts. (I’m better with other people’s.)
But the writing… those first drafts … ugh.

The story, the characters, the dialogue, the narrative – it’s never as good on paper as it is in my head. In my head are glorious paragraphs that sing my story and intrigue my readers with every word. On paper – on the screen in front of me – ugh.

Eventually I get there. My current WIP – the one with my critique group – is on draft number nine, and I have a feeling I’ll have at least two more before sending it to my agent. But the process to writing “the end” or “fade out” for the first time is just so painful.
It’s so painful that I decided to write this blog post rather than torture myself with further words, even though today is the only real day this week I could set aside to write.

Or maybe I just need a break …

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Crimes Against Other Writers

A few weeks ago, I was at a writers meeting where two new members showed up. After new member #1 described her project, new member #2 came up to her and told her exactly how she should write it. It was mansplaining, writer-style! I was horrified, but I didn’t know either woman well enough to say anything.

So instead I decided to write a blog post.

Of course, this “writersplaining” example isn’t the first time I’ve seen – or been on the receiving end – of a crime committed by another writer. Maybe you’ve committed a few of them yourself! Of course, most writers are very supportive of each other, and create communities that help each other become better writers and sell more books. But sometimes, in our eagerness to help other writers, we cross the line. And, in the words of the estimable Marlo Thomas: “Sometimes help is the kind of help that helping’s all about … and sometimes the help is the kind of help … we all can do without.”

So here’s a list of that second kind of help!

1 – Stealing her story. This should be obvious, but it’s not always. If a writer shares her story with you, that doesn’t mean it’s open season on that idea. And if she shares an incident in her past that she’s not ready to write about, that doesn’t give you the okay to write about it yourself. There are a million ideas out there. Come up with your own. Don’t take anyone else’s.

2 – Telling another writer exactly how she should approach her project. Unless the writer has specifically asked for this type of guidance, keep your mouth shut. It’s her idea and her baby, so let her develop it the way she envisions it.

3 – Offering help you don’t deliver. If you’ve promised your writer friend that you’ll have her manuscript proofread in two weeks, then by God proofread that manuscript in two weeks. Side thought: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. To anyone. Ever.

4 – Mishandling a request for feedback. It is always a tricky, sticky situation when your writer friend asks for feedback and you find major things wrong in the manuscript. And yet, she wouldn’t have asked you if she thought the manuscript was perfect. (If she did think it was perfect, you need more humble writer-friends.) Here are the three ways writers hurt other writers in this process:
Pulling your punches. If you think it stinks but tell her it just needs some proofreading, you’re setting her up for a bigger fall somewhere down the line.
Telling her it stinks. Yes, I know what I said above. But a flat-out “it stinks” is crushing and doesn’t help her at all. Be specific about what doesn’t work. Make a few suggestions how those problems could be fixed. Leave her feeling excited about the aspects of the novel that do work. If you can’t do any of that, then don’t respond to requests to read your friends’ manuscripts.
Telling her to give up on it. Just because you can’t fix it, doesn’t mean she can’t.

5 – Forwarding her project to another writer. Her unpublished work should be completely under her control, and she’s the only one who decides who gets to read it. If you have a friend who could give her good feedback, let her know and let her decide whether to make that contact. But don’t send it along to anyone… even if it’s someone you both know.

6 – Telling her what to write. You have ideas. She has ideas. You write yours, and she can write hers. End of story.

7 – Badmouthing the project behind her back. So you read it and hated it. Don’t tell your mutual writer friends how horrible it was. Let them make up their own minds. Maybe they can help her, even if you couldn’t.

8 – Asking your writer-friend who has an agent to pass your work along. If she believes in your work, (and her agent represents your genre), she will ask you if she can pass it along. If she hasn’t asked, then it’s not good enough.

9 – Pestering a busy writer for notes. Some writers say yes when they should have said no. If they haven’t gotten back to you on your manuscript, take the hint. Next time, ask someone who has more time.

10. Leaving a mean review after her book’s been published. So it wasn’t your cup of tea. There are a million other writers to whom you can offer an objective critique. But if she’s your friend, sing her praises on Amazon or keep your mouth shut.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Start off your day with a shot of Mug Shot!

Big congrats to my friend Caroline Fardig! The second book in her Java Jive series, MUG SHOT, comes out tomorrow!! The first book, DEATH BEFORE DECAF, is a USA Today bestseller!!

Full of humor and suspense, the bestselling Java Jive series heats up as the irrepressible heroine of Death Before Decaf faces off against Nashville’s upper crust to solve a shocking murder.

Former musician Juliet Langley has barely had a day off since taking over management of the coffeehouse owned by her best friend, Pete Bennett. But there’s always more to be done—such as prepping for the annual Holiday 5K Race organized by Pete’s snobby socialite girlfriend, Cecilia Hollingsworth. This year, Java Jive has a booth right at the finish line, and since Juliet and Cecilia don’t always see eye to eye, everything has to be perfect. Nothing can go wrong. Nothing . . . like Juliet stumbling over Cecilia’s dead body on the morning of the race.

When Pete is arrested for Cecilia’s murder, Juliet sets out to clear his name. She’ll do whatever it takes—even if it means standing up to the police, her ex-boyfriend, and the grande dames of Nashville. But there isn’t enough espresso in the world for the greatest challenge in her path: infiltrating Nashville’s high society to uncover the hidden hotbed of scandal without running afoul of the law herself. With her last dime staked on Pete’s bail bond and her staff growing jittery, the last thing Juliet needs is for her trademark temper to land her behind bars. As time drips away, Juliet needs to crack this case before the killer comes back for another shot.

And because I begged and pleaded, Caroline sent me an excerpt of her book! Something sizzling hot to get energized for the week! Thank you, Caroline!

* * *

There was a knock at Java Jive’s office door, and when I answered it, Ryder was standing on the other side.

“Ryder. Hi,” I said, surprised he’d dropped in. “Um . . . why did you come down here?” I asked.

“For this.”

He closed the gap between us in two strides, encircling my waist with one hand and threading the other through my hair. He pulled me close, and his mouth was instantly on mine, kissing me with more passion than I’d ever felt out of him. That was saying a lot, because a normal kiss from him was practically heart-stopping. I guessed this meant he’d changed his mind about us trying to date again. I inadvertently let out a little moan as his hands started roaming over my body.

Breaking our kiss, he pulled back and looked me in the eye. “Did Stan ever make you feel like that?”

I frowned. That was kind of a dick-ish thing to say, even though he wasn’t wrong in his assumption. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

His mouth curved up into a smile. “I’ll take that as a no.” He backed me up against the wall and pressed his body against mine.

“What makes you think you can just come in here and stick your tongue down my throat?” I asked, knowing if he kissed me again I wouldn’t have another coherent thought for a while.

“The way you look at me. You’re always undressing me with your eyes. It’s like I’m a piece of meat to you.”

“Oh, whatever. Don’t flatter yourself.” Hell yeah, I always mentally undressed him when I looked at him. But I was appalled to find out he knew it.

He had moved his attention onto my neck and began nuzzling me as he said cockily, “Don’t try to deny it, Juliet. You want me.”

Shivers shot through me as he kissed my neck, his five o’clock shadow scratching my skin. I was starting to get light-headed. “Be that as it may, I don’t know if I can get past how much of an ass you are sometimes.”

He looked down at me, smirking. “I’m willing to overlook the fact that you’re a pain in the ass sometimes.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”

He planted another kiss on me that made me weak in the knees. Luckily, he had me pinned against the wall. I kissed him back with the force of the two months of pent-up desire I’d harbored for him. When his hands snaked their way up my shirt, I came back to reality and put my hands on his chest, pushing him away.

“Down, boy. I know where this is going.”

“You mean to the couch?” he asked, nodding to the tiny sofa next to us.

“Having sex in a restaurant is generally frowned upon by the health department.”

“They won’t hear about it from me.”

I shook my head. “Still not happening.”

“Let’s go to your place.”

I’d never seen him so horny, but it was totally adorable. “Let’s see if we can make it through one date without getting into an argument first.”

“We did, the night you got thrown in jail.”

“That doesn’t count. I was too tired to fight that night.”

Ryder grinned at me. “You’re playing hard to get this time. Lucky for you I don’t mind a challenge.”

I glared at him. “I’m not playing anything. If we’re going to do this, I don’t want a repeat of last time. I’d prefer it last more than a week.”

“Yeah, but you have to admit it was one hell of a week.”

I shook my head tiredly in response. He was wearing me out.

“What about if I take you out on a real date tonight and am a complete gentleman?”

“That’s a start, although I won’t believe you can be a gentleman until I see it.”

* * *

Buy link for MUG SHOT

Meet Caroline!
CAROLINE FARDIG is the USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR of the Java Jive Mysteries series and the Lizzie Hart Mysteries series. Fardig's BAD MEDICINE was named one of the "Best Books of 2015" by Suspense Magazine. She worked as a schoolteacher, church organist, insurance agent, funeral parlor associate, and stay-at-home mom before she realized that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Born and raised in a small town in Indiana, Fardig still lives in that same town with an understanding husband, two sweet kids, two energetic dogs, and one malevolent cat.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing What You Don’t Know

In a writer’s workshop I took this past January, the workshop leader took the time to talk about the strong need for diverse characters in our writing. It was slightly surreal, as the leader and every single participant was a white woman. Still, it was hardly the first time I’d heard this plea. #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a very common hashtag among publishing professionals on Twitter.

Does it follow, though, that stories starring diverse characters need to be written by diverse writers? Should they? Can a white writer authentically write a story with a black protagonist? If not, are we also saying that black writers should not write stories with white characters? Can “color-blind casting,” which is exploding on television these days, be adapted for a written narrative?

J.K. Rowling’s recent experience doesn’t bode well for warm acceptance of white writers writing about cultures not their own. Native American communities were infuriated when her recent history of magic in North America, written as a run-up to the debut of the Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, touched on certain tropes and beliefs about Native Americans. What does a white woman from the U.K. know about the Cherokees and Navajos?

I’m not writing this to defend Rowling – I haven’t read the stories and don’t know enough about Native American cultures to even form an opinion. But I’ve cherished the Harry Potter books, and Jo’s interactions with fans and her charitable giving. I can only imagine how horrified she must feel, being accused of appropriating someone else’s culture. Getting it wrong.

I am a white woman – a wife and mother – and in every book I’ve written so far, my first-person protagonist is the same. True, one of them was also a half-vampire, but I didn’t get a lot of emails from half-vampires complaining I’d gotten it wrong. However, I did get one review that mentioned her Hispanic co-worker, Vic Ramirez, was Hispanic in name only.

In that writer’s workshop in January, I presented the first 25 pages of a YA novel I’m working on, featuring a morbidly obese teenager who decides to have gastric bypass surgery. I’ve had my issues with weight, but I’ve never been nearly that heavy. I’ve done research, and had a live-in nanny who had the procedure, but still, I have no personal experience with being that weight. So as much as I love my story and my protagonist, I still feel that I don’t have the right to write it. (Reading this blog post reinforced that feeling. ) I feel panicky at the thought of querying agents or publishers, imagining a similar reaction. Who are you to write about this girl? More broadly, do I have the right to write from the perspective of a bi-racial teen, or a black woman, or an Asian man – of anyone whose experience of the world is fundamentally different from mine? I can make up plots and whole universes, but do I have the right to make up people?

And if the answer is no, then are we saying that at obese person shouldn’t write from the point of view of characters who don’t struggle with their weight? That a black man shouldn’t attempt to write a story about a white woman? That a gay man should only write about gay men? Of course not. How much smaller our literary world would be if we only accepted stories in which a protagonist mirrored her creator.

And yet … some of the most well-known books about characters from minority populations are written by writers from those populations.
I don’t have any answers. Just lots of questions.

I honestly don’t know if I’m going to finish my story about my obese teenager. As much as I love her, the writing is tough, and there are other ideas that come easier. One of them is about a white wife and mother.

Are you writing a story in which your protagonist differs from you in a major way? How did you build her world, being different than yours?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thank You for Saying No

Everyone who works in Hollywood knows that no one ever says “no.” If an agent, manager or producer asks for your script but doesn’t like it, he rarely tells you outright. He’ll simply stop returning your calls or emails, or tell you it’s with his partner, or out to an actor, or they’re waiting to hear back from … someone. The conventional wisdom behind this is that no one wants to burn bridges. Your next script may be fantastic, the thinking goes, and therefore the agent/manager/producer doesn’t want to insult you by actively turning down this one. Apparently you’ll be so grateful at having been given the run-around that he’ll be the first person you’ll turn to with your next gem. (And yes, my use of “he” is deliberate.)

That’s how you can “die of encouragement” in Hollywood.

Thankfully, New York, where the literary agents live, plays by different rules. And I’d like to take this opportunity for a shout out for everyone there who has given me an unequivocal, no-doubt-about-it no:

To the agents who post on their websites that “if you don’t hear back from us after 6-8 weeks, it’s a pass:” Thank you for giving us a timeline and holding yourself accountable. A soft “no” is easier to hear than a hard “no,” and your timeline tells us exactly when we might hear from you, and when we know the material’s not right for you.

To the agents who reply “no” to a query: Instructions on a web site are enough. That you took the time to send a personal email to let me know that you read my query and pages, and they aren’t what you’re looking for, is very much appreciated. Yes, I can tell it’s canned language, but so what? I don’t have to wait eight weeks or wonder if the email got lost in spam or somehow overlooked.

To the agents who requested a partial and then sent the standard “pass” email: Thank you for letting me know where I stand with you. Yes, it’s disappointing that you were intrigued by my query but did not find the story or writing to be what you were looking for. Now I know it might be time for a rewrite, and to keep looking. You didn’t keep me hanging or wondering. Thank you.

To the agents who requested a partial and then sent a personalized “pass” email: Thank you so much for taking the time to craft a personal reply, letting me know exactly why the story didn’t work for you. I’m am so grateful you did this, even though you only looked at 50 pages or three chapters. I might not agree with all of your points, but I really appreciate that you reached out to give me your opinion. And some of your notes were absolutely spot on! I know you’re professional and thoughtful, and hope to have the chance to work with you someday.

To the agents who requested a full and then sent the standard “pass” email: Thank you for letting me know where I stand with you. Yes, it’s disappointing that you were intrigued by my query but did not find the story or writing to be what you were looking for. Now I know it’s time for a rewrite, and to keep looking. You didn’t keep me hanging or wondering. Thank you.
To the agents who requested a full and then sent a personalized “pass” email: Thank you so much for taking the time to craft a personal reply, letting me know exactly why the story didn’t work for you. I’m sad that you didn’t do this as an R&R letter, but honestly, if I agree with your notes, I’ll be doing a rewrite and querying you again anyway! Hope springs eternal, and your professionalism and thoughtfulness make me very eager to work with you. I’ll keep trying!

To the agent who requested a full, rejected it, and then read and rejected the rewrite: I thanked you personally, but I will do it again here: You were under no obligation to read it again after sending the standard pass. I am so grateful that you chose to read it anyway, and let me know that it still was not the right book for you. I envy those writers who have you as their representative! I still hope that someday we can work together.

To be honest, rejection hurts me just as much as any other writer. But what writer hasn’t received rejection after rejection? All of my literary heroes have stories of rejection letters tacked on walls or hidden in shoe boxes underneath their beds. Hard work and perseverance are just as important as talent in this business.

What these rejections tell me is that these agents see me as a professional. By sending along that “no,” they treat me as a mature, level-headed person trying to build a career in the publishing business. That unequivocal no means I am someone who is thick-skinned enough that she can take rejection, hear criticism, and keep writing and rewriting.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for that message.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Self-Publishing versus Indie – One Author’s Story

One of the wonderful things about being a writer in 2016 is that being rejected by every agent and traditional publisher on the planet doesn’t necessarily mean shoving your novel into a drawer where it will one day be discovered by a great-grandchild after your death. (Although sometimes this is exactly where that manuscript belongs!) Thanks to the internet and Amazon revolutions, for the past few years, writers have had the choice to self-publish. And with several self-published writers going on to make big names for themselves (Hugh Howery), and well-known writers opting out of their traditional-publisher contracts to get their work directly to their readers, self-publishing no longer has the stigma that it did in the days of the vanity press. At the same time, independent publishing has also exploded. With the ease of print-on-demand and ebooks, many small companies – some run by self-published authors – have sprung up to take the editing, design, and marketing aspects out of the hands of authors whose stories aren’t big enough to attract traditional publishers, but don’t want all the hassles that come with self-publishing.

So if you’ve exhausted all traditional publication outlets but aren’t willing to let your book baby go unborn, what option is best for you? I currently have two books out: Keeping Score, and The Ties that Bleed. I self-published Keeping Score, which led me to publish The Ties that Bleed through an indie. I found out that there are just as many cons to indie publishing as self-publishing. I learned, basically, that the old adage is true: If you want something done right, do it yourself.

Yes, I was grateful that I had someone else design the book cover and prepare the text for formatting. However, the book designer was limited to creating covers that matched others that the publisher had released, and to certain stock photography. The resulting cover was nice, but not what I originally had in mind.

The publisher had me work with an editor, who went over a few logic points with me (such as, the room is too dark for her to see his face so clearly) and stressed that the publisher hated em dashes. She and I went over the manuscript several times, at which point it went to the typesetter. I made the mistake of assuming someone at the publisher would go over the formatting as carefully as the editor had. Wrong! The book was released with typesetting errors such as smart quotes being used interchangeably with straight quotes, paragraphs not being indented, and random italics. (I was never given the option of okaying a proof.) The reviewers I sent the book to, and people who’d bought it through Amazon, pounced all over these errors. It was humiliating.

I had had two different indie publishers vying for the book, and I chose the one that had been in business for several years and had a strong output. Their authors seem very loyal and excited to be part of the publisher’s family. However, that does mean that each individual book only gets a brief moment of attention from the publisher before the next one hits the presses. Perhaps a smaller one would have been more supportive.

Secondly, I had no input as to pricing or sales decisions. My book is only 200 pages long, yet the ebook is $5.99. I’m a voracious Kindle reader, but I rarely if ever download a book that is more than four dollars, and that’s only if it’s a famous author and a book I’ve been looking forward to. Otherwise, I’ll reserve it at the library or wait for it to go on sale. Who’s going to spend that much money on a book from an author she’s never heard of? Very few people.
Sales are at the heart of ebook marketing, yet I never heard back from any of my emails suggesting a sale, especially around Halloween. Occasionally the publisher announces that all books will be briefly discounted for a very short amount of time, but this comes way too quickly to take advantage of the book-sale newsletters that self-published authors use to get the word out on their books.

The admittedly unscientific result: While I have 56 reviews of KEEPING SCORE on Amazon (most written in the first few months after I published it), I only have 11 for THE TIES THAT BLEED.

I have the next four books in the TIES series planned out, but with paltry sales and few reviews (although most everyone who reviewed it asked for a sequel), it doesn’t look like writing the next one is worth my while. Yet most self- and indie- publishing experts agree that a series helps keep sales of all books high.

Obviously this is just my experience, and I know that many authors who published with this company are very happy. And they were very responsive about getting my book to CreateSpace and issues that cropped up later with the back cover. They allowed me to purchase print copies of the book at their price. Royalties are paid promptly. But my thinking that almost any publisher was better than going on my own – and that a strong, professional contract mean professionalism in every capacity – was obviously wrong.

My third book may end up in that drawer, after all.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Happy Release Day, My Funny Valentine!

When my friend Caroline Fardig told me that Bad Medicine was going to be the last book in her Lizzie Hart series, I was disappointed. Yes, she had wrapped up the Lizzie/Blake storyline nicely and was moving onto other projects. But Lizzie is funny and brave and relatable, and I was going to miss her. Thankfully, Caroline changed her mind! Lizzie and Blake are back in a funny novella just in time for Valentine’s Day!

My Funny Valentine
The Lizzie Hart Mysteries Series #4
Caroline Fardig

All Lizzie wants for Valentine’s Day is for her fiancĂ©
NOT to be the prime suspect in a murder investigation.

Is that too much to ask?

Lizzie Hart is finally living the dream. She’s engaged to the love of her life, Blake Morgan, and more importantly, she hasn’t even given a thought to dead bodies or murder investigations for an entire year. The only hurdle in Lizzie and Blake’s way to wedded bliss is introducing their polar opposite families to each other at their engagement party.

Blake’s parents have thrown a lavish shindig, but the fun is quickly over when Blake’s brother arrives with an unexpected guest, the woman who left Blake at the altar years ago. If that weren’t enough drama for one evening, Lizzie and Blake find the town mayor dead and the detectives on the case put Blake at the top of their suspect list.

It’s a race against the clock for Lizzie and Blake to find the real killer before the police decide to lock Blake up and throw away the key.
This sounds awesome! Buy it here!

Learn everything you need to know about Caroline and all her books by checking out her Amazon page:

Congratulations, Caroline!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Necessity of No

Uberproducer (and my personal hero; probably yours, too) Shonda Rhimes has a new book out – The Year of Yes. It’s garnered great reviews and hit the New York Times bestseller list. I haven’t read it yet – it’s on my TBR list, of course! – but in it, Shonda talks about how she changed her life when she started saying yes to things she usually said no to. Delivering Ted talks. Going on talk shows. Eating healthy. Etc.

From where I’m sitting, life looks pretty good when you’re asked to deliver TED talks or go on Jimmy Kimmel, but Shonda – despite creating and producing some of the best TV shows evah! – said she was depressed. I wholeheartedly agree, though, that when you want to do something but you’re too afraid to do it, that’s not a fun situation to be in.

Unfortunately, though, most of us aren’t turning down invitations to address our alma mater’s graduating class. Most of us are getting invitations to volunteer for our child’s PTA, take on administrative duties at our offices (which are not related to our position, nor come with extra cash), walk our neighbor’s dog, or stuff envelopes for a friend’s charity. And we – usually begrudgingly – end up saying yes.

Most women I know have busy lives and big goals. They are raising families, pursuing careers, trying to get to the gym on a regular basis, wanting more time with close friends, and perhaps even pursuing a dream – writing, painting, singing. In order to accomplish the big things they’re up to in their lives, they simply don’t have time to make cupcakes for the school bake sale, drive a hundred miles for a second cousin’s first birthday party, and spearhead the office toy drive. Yet women are constantly asked to do all these tasks and more, and often say yes because of societal pressure to be nice and personal feelings of obligation.
But sometimes you just have to say no.

Not to everything, of course. If that second cousin’s mother is a dear family member whom you miss seeing, take the time and make the drive. (Or go up a day when she’s not so busy with the party and other guests.) But too many of us are spending valuable time on activities that do nothing to forward our personal and professional goals. Then at the end of the week, the month, the year, we wonder why we never wrote that book, took that weekend getaway with our college roommate, or got through the Oz series of books with our first grader.

Know your personal goals. Know your professional goals. Then say no to activities that don’t forward either. For instance, if one of your goals is to spend more time with dear friends, then don’t join that new meet-up group. Use that time instead to have coffee with a good friend you haven’t seen in a while.
A close cousin to saying no is the “yes, but.” Say yes to invitations that sound interesting, but set boundaries right away. Yes, you’ll meet your friend’s niece to give career advice, but only if she comes to your office. Yes, you’ll help your nephew fundraise for his sports team, but only through sending a few emails.

One word of caution, though – when you start saying no and setting limits, you’re bound to piss off a few people who have counted on your easy-going nature. Don’t let yourself get bullied or made to feel bad. Stick to your guns. What’s worse than saying a firm no or setting boundaries is to say a begrudging yes, and then do a poor job or cancel at the last minute. We all have people like that in our lives, and they contribute to our feeling overwhelmed.

In a similar vein, I have decided to cut down posting on my blog from almost every week to once or twice a month. With over three years of posting, and almost a hundred and fifty posts, I’m just not getting the return I need to make more frequent postings worthwhile. I’ll reconsider if things change.

This will give me more time to do other things, including reading Shonda Rhimes’ latest, The Year of Yes.