Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beyond the Book

First, I would like to thank everyone for the encouragement as I finished my five year journey to write, rewrite and yet rewrite again my first novel. Last week, I typed the final sentence. This process has been humbling, empowering, enjoyable and frustrating – just like cooking! Yes, I completed a book about cooking and through the pages, I have actually learned how to cook. Here’s a fun picture of my cooking class at Astor Center in New York with Chef Carl Raymond.


So now what? It’s time to think beyond the book. Actually, I started thinking beyond the book when I turned on the computer. I often visualized a reader turning the crispy pages of my story. That helped me remember for whom I was writing this story and how that might impact promoting it. I don’t know where my novel will find a home, but I do know one thing….The real journey has just begun!!

As a former banker, I always consulted the experts on what I didn’t understand. For this “excerpt from an expert” I contacted Kathleen Schmidt, Vice President and Director of Publicity for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. We connected via twitter. (Social media is another topic for a future blog post). I think as writers, we should be aware of what goes into the publicity process. Below you will find some answers:

1) Kathleen, you have promoted a variety of books - including the Patrick Swayze memoir and Jodi Picoult's Handle with Care. Is there a distinct difference in how you promote fiction vs. non fiction?
It really depends on the book. There is, of course, an inherent difference between promoting fiction and non-fiction. But then you need to look at the genre. Celebrity memoirs are in a category by themselves. Narrative non-fiction is very topic-driven, so the news cycles play a role in how effectively you are able to promote those titles(ie, political books). Someone like Jodi--she has a huge readership which continues to grow because mothers AND their teenage daughters read her books.

The real challenge is how to break out a new author--someone with a great voice and the ability to tell a wonderful story. Where do you get attention for them in a world where review pages have diminished and there are so many forms of entertainment for the consumer? I don't have all the answers, but what I can say is that if the book is great, and you can get people to read it, that is half the battle.

The publishing industry is in a transitional period right now. The one thing we do know is this: the act of reading is not going away. Books may be published in different formats, but people will still read them. The question is--what kind of stories do people want to read?

2) Recognizing the importance of the bottom line to maximize book sales, especially in today's environment, what can the author do to supplement the publisher's promotional efforts?
That is a loaded question. I don't think it is wise for any author to finish a book and then wash their hands clean of the process. The publisher/author relationship is a partnership. We never set out for a book to fail. That's very important to remember.

I'm not a big advocate of doing anything without a plan. For instance, if an author creates a book trailer--they should never do it without a solid plan for promoting it. Same thing for an author website. You can never take the "build it and they will come" stance.

It is hard to be specific here because it truly depends on the book. However, supplementing advertising and marketing is never a bad idea. Just make sure everyone involved is in agreement on the messaging.

3) I noticed that Atria books is partnering with the Pajama Mommy Community. Is this a growing trend in publicity for books?
We have worked with Pajama Mommy, and we are open to working with online communities in general. We've continued to maintain strong relationships with bloggers, and we are on Twitter. The growing trend is that publicists will keep interacting with the consumer.

4) Does the increase of e-books directly impact the methods of promoting?
Not really. Pretty much all of our books are available as e-books. Right now, e-books are a matter of preference with the consumer. Some people like them, some don't. Just as some people prefer a hardcover over a paperback, etc.

5) Do you like to cook? What is one of your favorite recipes that is easy to prepare after a long day at the office?
I like to cook, but I don't do it very often. I have a busy schedule, and two little ones at home(my son is 5, my daughter is 22 months). My husband is actually the chef in our house most of the time. Since we both work full time, we end up ordering take-out quite a bit. That said, one of my specialties are homemade meatballs with red sauce(or, gravy as we Italians call it). My mother would make this every Sunday, and I learned by just watching her. It's become a tradition in my house--I make it once a month.

I love to bake, though, and my Christmas cookies are always in demand by family members!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Frank and Fiction!


Frank Lloyd Wright’s Blueprint for Fiction

Last week I chaperoned my oldest daughter’s school field trip to Oak Park to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio. Having lived in the Chicago area for over sixteen years, I still had not visited that landmark. I welcomed the opportunity to check that off my “To See and Do” list. Of course I had heard of Frank Lloyd Wright but had never really learned about him.

As a result of this visit, I have great respect for this extraordinary architect who left us with a legacy of not only how to build extraordinary houses but how to build a great novel. So here are some tips you can apply to your writing:

1) Make your novel organic. FLW’s approach to building a home was that it must feel organic to the landscape. Natural, not forced. As a child growing up in Wisconsin, he learned to admire and love nature. When he built his home and studio, there was a large willow tree on the property between the two buildings. Instead of cutting it down, FLW made holes in the studio to accommodate the branches so they could grow inside. As novelists, we should allow our stories, characters and settings to feel organic to the reader.

2) Incorporate that which influences you. As a child, FLW loved to play with Froebel blocks. The geometric shapes are seen throughout the homes and structures he built. As an adult, he loved Japan. The tour guide even mentioned that he would ride horses in his kimono. Attached to the walls of the barreled ceiling family room, FLW designed stylized lotus flower lights. He hated clutter which blocked the flow of a room. With that in mind, he suspended the large portion of his grand piano through a wall and over a back staircase so the family room would have more space. Are there areas in our writing that we can de-clutter? What influences you? Do you include what you love in your books? What influences your characters? How do you incorporate those influences into the organic flow of your novel?

3) Create a “path of discovery”. FLW wanted clients to understand and discover him. He was a non-conformist, not a cookie cutter architect. His studio was not easily accessible even though it faced Chicago Avenue. Clients would have to find the entrance to the loggia which displayed four key symbols of his life and work: The Tree of Life, The Book of Knowledge, Wisdom and Fertility of Creativity. Two commissioned sculptures bookend the roof of the loggia. These sculptures represent man breaking thru bonds of convention. As novelists, we should also include a path of discovery in our own writing. We don’t have to conform to formulaic writing. We too can break the molds of convention with different techniques. Be an innovator. FLW created the first drafting table that tilted! His back and shoulders were getting too tired from constantly bending over the flat table. He found a need and innovated a solution.

4) “Truth is Life”. Those are the words carved onto FLW’s living room fireplace tucked within an inglenook. That was his personal creed – I guess a pre-curser to “keeping it real.” As novelists, we should incorporate this mantra and make the characters true to themselves and to those around them. He incorporated this unhidden truth within his structures. In his octagonal shaped studio, he exposes the chains and balls which hold the octagonal walls in place. He wasn’t afraid to expose truth even when it might not be considered beautiful.

5) Leave a lasting mark. FLW wanted to have a motto in every room, but his wife, Catherine allowed him only one, and that was on the fireplace. He of course had a motto in his studio. Here is what it says: “Ye’ve left a glimmer still to cheer the man – the artifex that holds in spite o knocks and scale o friction waste and slip and by that light now mark my word we’ll build the perfect ship.” Frank Lloyd Wright left an indelible mark with the homes and buildings that he designed. As novelists, we too have the opportunity to “build the perfect ship” and leave a mark in the hearts and minds of our readers.

In recognition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s love of Japan, let’s feature a delicious recipe that perhaps he might have enjoyed.


Seared Tuna with Japanese Salsa


Recipe courtesy Sushi Katsu-Ya

* Cook Time: 5 min
* Level: Easy
* Yield:4 servings

Prep Total: 20 min

Sauce:

1 cup soy sauce

1 cup rice vinegar

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sesame oil

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tomato, finely chopped

8 cilantro sprigs, finely chopped

1 red onion, finely chopped

4 (6-ounce) fresh tuna fillets

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

4 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 avocados, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Mix all the ingredients for the sauce. Add the chopped tomato, cilantro and onion. Season the tuna very well with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet over high heat and add the vegetable oil. When the oil is hot, sear the tuna for 30 seconds on each side. Remove from heat and slice the tuna into 1/4-inch slices. To serve, neatly arrange the tuna slices and avocado slices on a plate and drizzle the sauce over the tuna.

Friday, October 30, 2009

I'm guest blogging at Michael Hyatt today!

12 Strategies for Leadership Success


My father, the late Dr. Claude H. Rhea, Jr., executed and exemplified lessons on leadership throughout his short life of sixty-two years. He was a strategic visionary, a 32-year colon cancer survivor, a member of the prestigious Royal Society of the Arts, an accomplished international lyric tenor who recorded five albums (one with the Concert Orchestra of London), a published author (including his autobiography, a cook book and two song books for children), a Dean of a Music School and a President of a College.



These are his life lessons for leadership:

1. Creed. Create a mission statement for your life and your job. Each professional and personal project you undertake should fall under the tenets of your creed and belief system. An important part of my dad’s creed was to make faith an action verb and to honor God in all that he did.

2. Heed. Surround yourself with people that can provide insight and wisdom, even if you disagree with them. You should always understand all sides of an issue before making key decisions. Connect with others and network.

READ THE REST HERE!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Significance of Insignificant Details


It’s the smallest of details that can make our stories seem real. As a reader, I want the details to blend with the story, not stand out in a glaring way that will disrupt or contradict my knowledge of a time period or venue. As a writer, I want to cultivate the trust of my readers so they will not get tangled in a web of details, but rather relax in the backdrop of factual fiction.

Research is the key ingredient for preparing a delicious tale – whether it’s contemporary or historical. Research is not dull or dry, it’s vibrant and versatile! While writing and rewriting my first novel, a contemporary women’s fiction piece, I have applied what I learned in banking: Gather the facts!

Before closing a deal, bankers have the opportunity to conduct what is called due diligence on a company and the transaction. This can involve visiting the factories or distribution points, meeting with management, speaking with their clients and reviewing even more financial statements. I always loved this part of the process and even walked through numerous industrial factories wearing a hard hat. There is something invigorating about seeing in person what you have studied on paper. That is the experience we as writers need to deliver to our readers.

But what if my novel is set in a different country, and I can’t travel there? That’s okay. It’s still doable. Google. Email. Telephone. I’ve done it all. Today, for example, I am rewriting a section in my novel in which my main character visits London and dines at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, a traditional British restaurant. I remember dining there with my parents as a young girl, but of course much has changed since then. After researching online, I telephoned the maitre d’ and asked him specific questions. “What does the menu look like? Is it laminated or paper?” And the list goes on.

There is also another wonderful resource that a lot of people are not aware of: The New York Public Library. Here is a link to that website: http://nypl.org Look under the heading Ask NYPL. The library provides online chat services to answer your question in addition to email and telephone inquiries. Some research is fee based so you will need to discuss this with one of the helpful librarians as to the scope of your project.

Tricia Goyer, a dear friend and author of many historical and contemporary novels is one of the real experts I know on research. I will feature her expertise on research in an upcoming blog. Meanwhile, enjoy a recipe from Amy Lathrop as you get ready for the holidays.


Take-away Tidbit:

Crescent Rolls

1 T. yeast
¾ c. warm water
1 t. sugar
Set aside for action –
Meanwhile, beat:
2 eggs

Add:
1 c. warm milk
1 c. warm water
1 t. salt
¼ c. sugar
½ c. oil

Add yeast mixture. Stir in flour. Knead on floured board. Place in greased bowl. Cover. Let rise for 1 hour. Divide into 2. Roll to about ¼ - ½ inch thick, about 15 inch circle. Butter heavily with nearly melted butter and cut like pizza. Roll up from large end to small end, let rise for 1 hour.

CAN BURN EASILY!!! Bake at 400 for 15 min. Enjoy!

“The failure of incomplete success of a recipe oftentimes depends upon some little detail that has been misunderstood or overlooked in the preparation.”
A Book for A Cook, The Pillsbury Co. (1905)


(photo courtesy of Warwick)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

And the winner is ...

Sara J Henry!

Congrats Sara - you won Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. Look for an email in your in-box!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thomas Nelson's Appetite for Fiction


I will forever be grateful to Thomas Nelson for publishing my first book, A Mother’s Heart Knows in 2005.

As a former banker, I have been impressed with the management and business performance of this company. Under the leadership of Michael Hyatt, Thomas Nelson continues to succeed and meet consumer demands in this changing industry. “Thomas Nelson reports that it has claimed the largest market share percentage of fiction in the Christian retail channel through June--more than 20%, according to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association's Pubtrack data.” (Christian Retailing, August 27, 2009).

Allen Arnold, SVP and Publisher of Fiction at Thomas Nelson, actually takes the time to meet with writers at the ACFW conference to provide professional insight into this challenging business. I admire that. Ami McConnell, Senior Acquisitions Editor, is part of the Thomas Nelson Fiction team. My literary agent, Janet Kobobel Grant, founder of Books & Such, said the following: “Ami is one of the finest fiction editors I know. She makes authors dig deeper to find rich veins of writing. One of my clients, after receiving a critique on her contracted manuscript from Ami phoned me and said, ‘Do I have to do any of this?’ I replied, ‘No. But if you want to be a better writer, what Ami has laid out for you will make an immense difference. If you don't want to grow, don't follow her suggestions.’ The author took the challenge and wrote one of her very best books as a result.

In a previous email, Ami recommended two excellent writing sources:
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

The Hero's 2 Journeys

Here is my recent Q & A with Ami:

Q: First of all, congratulations on your success in being a key leader in the Christian fiction publishing industry. What is Thomas Nelson interested in acquiring for its fiction line in the upcoming years?

A: Thanks! We are thrilled with what we’ve been able to achieve in the past few years. We’re always looking for a GREAT story, but in terms of genres, we’re looking to acquire more romance titles (including historical and contemporary) and general Christian fiction titles.

Q: If you cook, what is your favorite recipe? If you don't cook, what is your favorite take out?

A: I’m a terrible cook, but I’m gradually becoming a pretty good baker. My family raves about my chocolate chip pumpkin bread.


Take Away Tidbit:

Here is the recipe from Ami McConnell:

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs
1 16 oz. can pumpkin
2 ½ cups flour
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon cloves
Bag chocolate chips

Combine oil, eggs, pumpkin, mixing well. Add remaining dry ingredients and beat until smooth. Bake in 2 large loaf pans or several small loaf pans at 325 for 1 hour and 10 minutes. Bread should slightly pull away from sides of pan when done. Let cool completely in pans before removing.

Enjoy!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Just Write! (and I found it!)

Although you might be solely working on writing fiction, keep an open mind to opportunities that come your way for other writing projects. I’ve discovered that writing is like exercising (if only typing on a keyboard could burn as many calories as running on a tread mill). When you cross train (weight lifting, cardio, stretching) your body optimizes the metabolism. When you “cross write” your mind sharpens its focus on writing fiction with well researched facts and writing non-fiction with the flowing prose of a novel.

This past week, my dear friend Vicky Wauterlek, founder of Hands of Hope asked me to write an article for the newsletter to share the story of Ariik, a Lost Boy of Sudan. First of all, I must say this was an incredible blessing in my life to actually have the opportunity to interview Ariik and hear firsthand his heartwarming and heart wrenching story. Mere words on a page can never accurately capture the life experiences of such a brave young man. However, I hope that my article can at least provide a peephole into what Ariik’s life was like as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Read the article here.


Take-away Tidbit
This week, as we step deeper into the forest of fall, perhaps you might wish to sample the harvest. You might remember that in my last post I lamented the loss of Waterbrook/Multnomah's (a division of Random House) Ken Petersen's Pumpkin Cheesecake recipe ... well, I'm happy to report that I found it!

Enjoy!

(Oh, and I'll be announcing the winner of the signed Donald Maass book, Writing the Breakout Novel on Monday, October 12! You still have time to enter to win!)



Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake

Ingredients

Crust

18 whole graham crackers, broken into large pieces

6 Tbs sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

1/2 tsp ground cloves

12 Tbs unsalted butter, melted

Filling

1 1/3 cups sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp ground cloves

1/4 tsp ground allspice

1/2 tsp salt

1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin, (see prep below)

1 1/2 lbs cream cheese, three 8 oz. packages, cut into 1-inch chunks, softened

1 Tbs vanilla extract

1 Tbs lemon juice, fresh squeezed

5 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup heavy cream

Cream Topping

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup sour cream

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

1/8 tsp salt

2 tsp rum extract, (or to taste)


Instructions

FOR THE CRUST

(Note: This crumb crust recipe below is likely more than you will need, but this amount makes it easier to work with along the sides.)

1. Adjust oven to middle rack, preheat to 325 degrees. Spray bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan with non-stick (butter) cooking spray.

2. In food processor, pulse crackers, sugar, and spices until finely ground. Transfer to medium bowl and drizzle butter over. Mix with spatula, until evenly moistened.

3. Turn crumbs into spring form pan, and press evenly into bottom and sides. TIP: Use slightly smaller bowl or ramekin, inverted, to press crumb crust evenly and firmly.

4. Pre-bake until fragrant and browned, about 10 minutes. Caution: Watch this carefully so it does not brown too much or burn. Cool on wire rack.

FOR THE PUMPKIN

(Note: It's important to remove as much excess moisture from the pumpkin as possible. This procedure prevents the cheesecake from becoming soggy):

1. Line baking sheet with a triple layer of paper towels. Spread pumpkin on paper towels in even layer. Cover pumpkin layer with a second triple-layer of towels. Press firmly until towels are saturated. Peel back top layer of towels and discard. Grasp bottom layer of towels on one side and fold pumpkin in half. Peel back towels.

2. Repeat.

3. Flip pumpkin onto baking sheet, discarding towels.

FOR THE SPRING FORM PAN BATH

(Note: Using a bath keeps the top crust of a cheesecake from cracking, adding moisture into the oven during baking):

1. Boil 4 quarts of water as you make the filling (below).

2. Set spring form pan on double-layer of heavy duty aluminum foil. Wrap bottom and sides with foil. Make sure the wrap is tight and won't leak water into the pan. Set wrapped spring form pan in roasting pan.

3. After filling is prepared (see below), pour into spring form pan.

4. CAREFULLY pour boiling water into the roasting pan, filling it until water comes halfway up the sides of the spring form pan. CAUTION: Be careful not to splash water into the filling in the spring form pan. (I've done it!)

FOR THE FILLING:

1. Whisk sugar, spices, and salt in a small bowl.

2. In large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until softened. NOTE: You can do this in a mixer, but the danger is to over-beat throughout this process, which can curdle and lump the cheese. I prefer hand mixing. You don't need to mix much.

3. Add about one-third of sugar mixture. Mix until combined, about 1 minute. Repeat twice until all of sugar mixtures in combined. Scrape sides of bowl.

4. Add pumpkin, vanilla, and lemon juice. Mix until combined, about 45 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl.

5. Add 3 eggs and beat until incorporated, about 1 minute. Scrape sides of bowl.

6. Add remaining 2 eggs and beat until incorporated, about 45 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl.

7. Add heavy cream and beat until smooth, about 45 seconds. Scrape bottom and sides and give a final stir.

FOR BAKING:

1. Pour filling into spring form pan, and prepare the bath (above).

2. Set roasting pan containing the spring form pan and bath in center of oven. CAUTION: The pan is heavy and the water is hot. Bake about 1 and 1/2 hours. Cake should be slightly wobbly in center when you remove it from oven--145-150 degrees temp in center of cake.

3. Run paring knife around sides of pan.

4. Allow spring form pan to rest in roasting pan and cool until water is warm, about 45 minutes. Remove spring form pan from water bath. Discard foil. Set on wire rack. Cool until barely warm--2 to 3 hours. Wrap with plastic wrap, refrigerate 3 hours or overnight.

THE CREAM TOPPING:

(Optional, but good)

1. In bowl of standing mixer, whisk heavy cream, sour cream, brown sugar, and salt until combined. Add rum extract, whip until fluffy and doubled in volume.

2. Spoon generously onto servings of the pumpkin cheesecake.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ken Petersen's thoughts on the Future of Fiction

Ken Petersen is one of the most brilliant and strategic visionary leaders in publishing that I have ever met. Previously at Tyndale, Ken had the foresight to acquire the Left Behind series written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. Now as Publisher for Waterbrook Multnomah - a division of Random House, Ken brings his expertise to that company as well.

When I told him about my new fiction blog, Ken graciously agreed to take the time from his hectic schedule to answer a question that I could post. Here is the Q & A with Ken:

Q: As publisher for Waterbrook Multnomah, what trends do you see continuing, beginning or ending for strategic acquisitions as it pertains to fiction? And is there hope for a first time novelist to be acquired?
A: My answer to your questions about fiction has to be short. But I can say that my sense of things is that after a couple decades of growth CBA fiction has found its level of readership and is likely to stay there. Consequently (the bad news is) that fiction as a category is not likely to grow much more overall. The good news is that it may grow some in specific genres. My theory all along has been that CBA fiction has progressed chronologically through the various genres: Starting with “biblical fiction” in the early 80s to prairie fiction (Jeanette Oke) in the late 80s to romance fiction in the early 90s; then apocalyptic (Left Behind) and contemporary suspense (Dee Henderson) around the same time; recently Amish fiction, some relational romance (Kingsbury), and even futuristic/sci-fi. So the trend continues to be branching Christian themes into new genres. And now the new territory seems to be ”genre fusion”—pairing of romance and suspense, or bringing in vampires to a romance story with a Christian message or application. So some advice might be to look at genres that haven’t yet been tapped or combination of genres and styles that yield a new kind of fiction experience.

As for new and first-time authors, I know that we at WaterBrook still publish first-timers. I think actually it’s easier for an unknown author to break into fiction than non-fiction. More depends on sample chapters of a fiction author’s writing—an unknown, with a great read—can get published no problem…

So, my fellow writers and aspiring novelists, there is hope!


On a personal note, as I was putting the hand grenade to my fifth draft of my first novel and feeling a little discouraged, I found a precious handwritten note from my late mother stuffed in some files. I had just sent her a copy of a non-fiction manuscript that was about to be published. Here is what she wrote: “You write beautifully. Your prose flows smoothly and accurately. You’re honoring God with this gift of writing He has given you. Your writing will now be published! Your future is limitless! I’m very proud of you!” What refreshing words to renew my strength to yet again face another day of re-writes. I want to encourage you, too, dear writer. Don’t be discouraged. Keep clicking those keys and write the story that is in your heart.

Take-away tidbit:
Confession time: I misplaced Ken Petersen’s recipe for his pumpkin cheesecake. I know it’s stacked in a pile somewhere. I will need to ask him for another copy. Meanwhile, I thought it would be appropriate to share one of my mother’s recipes today. Her name was Carolyn Rhea, and she was a wonderful author. Here is an easy dish she would prepare while she was busy trying to meet a deadline for her own books when I was growing up. She had to write on the typewriter!

Potato Surprise

32 oz pkg of hash browns completely thawed
2 cans cream of chicken soup
16 oz size sour cream
1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Mix and sprinkle Parmesan on top. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Secret to a Breakout Novel

Ironically, I experienced my first “stranger than fiction” moment at a fiction writers’ conference last week. ACFW. In the middle of these courses in Denver, I received emails and recorded messages from the police in my Chicago suburb and from the superintendent of the school district. An armed convict had escaped, carjacked a Jetta by gunpoint, robbed a bank nearby and was fleeing in the suburbs. The schools were on a soft lockdown. Wow! And that was real life!

I’m glad to report that the armed and dangerous convict was caught, and suburbia has settled back into its comfortable and mundane normalcy. But what an important lesson to illustrate the secret to a breakout novel that Donald Maass shared at the ACFW conference in Denver: Tension.

His course literally has now changed the course of my writing. Yes, I returned home and began to completely rewrite and overhaul my novel, but I now have a mandated direction. He signed my copy of his bestselling book, Writing the Breakout Novel with the following inscription: “For Margaret. Tension on every page! Donald Maass.” That’s it! Tension on every page! An excerpt from an expert!

And for those readers of my From Finance to Fiction blog, I would like to give you a chance to win a signed copy of Donald Maass’s book. I purchased an extra one at the conference. Please post a comment and share your “stranger than fiction” moment. I look forward to hearing from you. And by the way, Donald Maass is holding on very tightly to his tomato sauce recipe. Please share your recipes with me. I’m always looking forward to a delicious dish that isn’t too time consuming.

Here’s a peek into some upcoming blog posts. Debbie Macomber’s advice to writers. Ken Petersen’s thoughts on what is next in CBA fiction, along with his recipe for pumpkin cheesecake.

Take away Tip:
Sample some figs this autumn season Cut them in half and spread a little cream cheese or goat cheese on them and enjoy! A delicious antioxidant. They also are scrumptious baked.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Grab a white flag and get ready to surrender!

That doesn’t mean give up on that novel. It means give into it. Nancy Woodruff, a dear friend and an incredibly talented novelist who teaches writing part time at NYU, emailed me today with some excellent advice that I’d like to share. Maybe I can call these insights Excerpts from Experts.

Nancy has been such an encouragement to me through my many rounds of rejections. Nancy’s new novel, My Wife’s Affair will be released on April 15, 2010 by Amy Einhorn Books, a Penguin imprint. This is the same publisher that launched The Help– a fabulous book. When I asked Nancy how she applies what she teaches to her students at NYU to her own writing, she answered:

“Although I write mostly fiction and my students write mostly nonfiction (including personal essays and memoir), I always tell them that the writing process is the same for both. You always need to surrender to the material as it comes to you, to "write it out" first without worrying about the final product. You have to acknowledge that much of what you write on a first draft is not going to be very good or perhaps not useable at all. The important thing is to get a first draft! Then you can go through cutting and adding and changing and shaping for as long as you need to until the piece pleases you.”

What great advice. Surrender to the material. I have often battled my thoughts and my words – fearful to click the computer keys - knowing that the dialogue and the details will not be perfect. Instead, I should just battle my fears and “surrender to the material.” Have you faced the same dilemma in your writing? What holds you back?

I also asked Nancy about her biggest challenge in writing her newest novel. Here is what she said:

“My biggest challenge in writing My Wife's Affair was the long path I had to follow before publication. The book took less than two years to write initially, but with feedback from friends and potential agents and editors, I rewrote it for years. Very often it seemed the book would never see the light of day, but the truth was, once someone believed in it and sent it out, it was accepted almost immediately. What I have learned from all this is that you have to trust your material and stick with it as long as it takes. Don't give up!”

Amen to that! Believe in yourself and the story that is in you. And as Nancy says, “Don’t give up!”


Take Away Tidbit

My assistant Amy is a total foodie (and former caterer). She's offered to share a few time saving tips with me because she knows that being a writer is just one of the many things I do. My writing comes after my responsibilities as a wife and mother. One way she suggested I carve out a few extra moments in my day is to plan each weeks meals in advance. That way I'm prepared each day and know exactly what I need to do. Far too often I find myself staring at the empty fridge at 5:00 and asking myself, "what could I possibly through together for dinner"? I love that planning my meals in advance takes the stress out of dinner time. I just look at my list and it tells me what to do.

Amy also suggests buying a few prepared foods, "While I would LOVE to make our dinners from scratch every night, I've learned how time saving it is to just pick up a roast chicken to serve with my Quinoa salad and asparagus, rather than to make everything myself." Another idea Amy suggests for family night is picking up a pizza or two and serving it with a homemade Cesar Salad. Another quick dinner idea her family loves is flank steak (on the grill, 8 minutes a side - done!) with a selection of deli salads from a quality market.

What about you? What are your time saving tips for mealtime?

Oh, and enjoy this scrumptious Quinoa Salad recipe Amy gave me!

Quinoa, Black Bean and Corn Salad

1 Cup Quinoa
1 1/2 cups black beans
1 1/2 Tbl red-wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups cooked corn
1 medium sized green pepper
2 pickled jalapeƱos, seeded/minced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1 Cup Quinoa prepared with 2 cups chicken stock (follow directions on Quinoa box)

While Quinoa is cooking toss beans with vinegar and salt & pepper to taste.

Transfer cooked Quinoa to bowl to cool. Add beans, corn, bell pepper, jalapenos and cilantro - toss well.

Make dressing:
Whisk together lime juice, salt, cumin and add oil in a stream while whisking.

Pour dressing over Quinoa mixture and stir well. Adding salt/pepper to taste.

Serve room temp.

(recipe adapted from epicurious.com)

Friday, September 11, 2009

And here’s the pitch…..

Baseball season and writers’ conferences share that in common. The pitch! As I prepare for the ACFW Conference in Denver next week, I am doing a lot of practice pitches in anticipation of having a few moments with some editors. So if you catch me in the carpool line talking to myself, I assure you that I am not crazy – I am just polishing my pitch. The proverbial “elevator pitch” - describing the manuscript in thirty seconds or less. Bottom line, here is my really, really fast pitch: My novel is Eat Pray Love meets Steel Magnolias.

Hopefully that introduction of tying in a best selling book and a beloved movie will encourage a “swing” by an editor to learn a little bit more. I also plan to bring along a “one pager” with a brief synopsis and overview of characters.

In addition, I am thrilled to be signed up for Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel course.

I am frantically clicking the computer keys in an effort to rewrite my manuscript. That’s the one drawback for first time novelists – Before a publisher will purchase your novel, you have to have it finished. So if I’m not practicing the “pitch” in the carpool line, I am practicing dialogue between my characters.

Some good news for you aspiring and established novelists. According to Donald Maass, you don’t have to have or build a “platform” for your fiction. In a recent email, he responded to my question:

“There really is no “platform” for fiction. The best promotion for novelists is bringing out great novels on a regular basis. Everything else is secondary.”

Return your power tools to the shed. You don’t have to build Noah’s ark! Instead, craft your words and write great stories.

Take-away Tidbit:

I asked Donald Maass about his favorite food to cook. Here’s what he said:


“I make the best tomato sauce in America, bar none, bring on the challengers!"



Okay, readers. Let the games begin! Please provide your best tomato sauce recipes. I will see if Mr. Maass will provide his recipe at the conference next week.
As an incentive, I’ll purchase an extra copy of his Writing the Breakout Novel and send it to the winner. Bon Appetit!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Life Changing Moments

In April 2005, my husband came home from work and said, “Honey, I think I’m going to quit my job and run for U.S. Congress.” That was a life changing moment. After winning a heated primary, he came very close to unseating the incumbent in the general election. I’m so proud of him.

After several years, I am still processing this incredible experience, full of campaign events with many high profile leaders, including President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Vice President Cheney, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Senator John McCain, and even Mike Ditka. I invite you to put any partisanship aside as I share some personal moments from the campaign trail. I promise to tie all of this into writing a novel.

It’s funny what I recall and learned during this 18 month campaign – many lessons involved high heels. In the summer of 2005, my family and I walked in countless Fourth of July parades. Trust me. Never wear high heels on a parade route. Also, never wear high heel sandals when you’re walking through a kitchen with the Secret Service. I slipped on some cooking oil or something that had fallen onto the floor. I went gliding toward a near wipe-out.

On a serious side note, I will always treasure a true moment of history. A dear friend of mine is Lisa Jefferson, the operator who took the phone call from Todd Beamer on the United flight 93 on September 11th. She wrote an incredible book entitled, Called. I was surprised when I heard that Mayor Giuliani and Lisa Jefferson - both heroes on that fateful day, had never met each other. When Giuliani came to Chicago to campaign for my husband, I invited Lisa Jefferson to the event. In a private moment, I introduced these two wonderful people.

Perhaps in other blogs, I will share additional highlights and lowlights from the campaign trail – if you’re interested. But for now I want to focus on novels and life changing moments. My novel opens with the following scene: My 33 year old character receives a letter from her birth grandmother asking to meet with her. The challenge I, and all of us writers, face is how to present emotional drama without being too dramatic or maudlin. Maybe the answer is to insert the “high heel” factor. Something uncomfortable that the character is enduring or discovering can still provide some levity. (However, I vow that I will never subject any of my characters to my own humiliation of sliding across a greasy kitchen floor.)

What have some of your life changing moments been, and how have you applied those experiences to your own writing?

Take-away Tidbits:
This past week, I heard a tip from a wonderful suspense novelist. Colleen Coble recommends getting the DVD The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler. This DVD presents the two journeys a hero must take: Physical and Emotional and provides instructive writing techniques. Colleen heard Michael Hauge at a seminar and said this DVD changed how she looks at story.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lessons from the Produce Aisle.

Okay, I am about to make an embarrassing confession. I am 47 years old (that’s not the embarrassing part), and until yesterday, I had no idea how to select good fruit. Growing up, I never went grocery shopping with my mother. And also, I never quite learned how to cook. My dad was the ultimate “foodie” and hosted several gourmet club dinners at our home. I know firsthand that there is no such thing as a “cooking gene.” My local fire department knows that too after my salmon fiasco. (That’s another story)….

Yesterday, I met Frank, the delightful produce manager at my grocery store. I put on my reading glasses to get a closer look at the pluots. Overcome by curiosity, I just had to ask, “What are these things?” He leaned against the mop and smiled. “Those are sweeter than the plumbs.” He then showed me the different varieties – the dinosaur egg type and the deep purple ones which reminded me of a smurf’s hairdo, only smooth and pointy.

Frank has worked in produce for 45 years at the same grocery store chain, and I was so happy that he took the time to share his knowledge. “Have you seen the grapes yet? They’re on special and are really good.” I walked around the colorful assortment of fruit on the table. “Here, try this one.” He pulled a grape out of the plastic bag. At first I looked around for a veggie and fruit spray to “wash” the grape, but then realized I was with a seasoned professional. I plopped the grape in my mouth. It was delicious. “Always sample a grape before you buy the bag.” Frank reassured me. “It’s okay. And also you can take some grapes from one bag and put them into another.” I was shocked. I never would have thought of this. These fruits are not considered “pre-packaged” so it’s not like you’re opening a bag of chips to mix it with another bag.

We then went to the apricot section. “Choose one that has a blush to it. That means there is more sugar content and it will be sweeter.” He then lifted a plump peach that was next to the apricots. “See, you can see where there was a leaf that covered most of this peach from the sun. Only a small part of it is pink.” He was right. The leaf had left a large tan line as if wearing a one piece instead of a bikini while ripening on the tree.

What a great lesson in faith! If we are covered in the fig leaves of our humanity, trying to hide ourselves from the Son, we will not get pink. The sweetness of God’s grace will not fully ripen. Our faith will be more tart. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” Galations 5:22

Let’s choose to be pink!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Exciting News!


Hello everyone!

Julie Papievis, my co-author on Go Back and Be Happy, will be featured on CBN sharing her amazing story on Tuesday, September 1st. To see what time and channel the show is on in your area go here!

The show will be posted to Julie's web site, www.gobackandbehappy.com Tuesday afternoon for viewing if you miss it :)

Friday, August 28, 2009

The dreaded “R” word.



The dreaded “R” word. Rejected! It’s so hard not to take that word personally, isn’t it? Rejection can either be the end or it can be the beginning. We have a choice. Just throw the manuscript in the shredder or log into that computer and start the “rewrites.”

My novel has been rejected a few times now, but I’m not giving up. The common thread has been that the editors like the characters and the story, but it’s my writing. OUCH! Okay, so I was trained as a banker, not as a novelist. My learning curve is steep, so I have donned hiking boots and am approaching this challenge with one of my key strengths I had as a banker: Analyzing. Also, I have consulted with the experts.

First, I looked at some best selling fiction authors and their books and asked myself: What makes these books different from the others in the market? The style of writing? The sentence structure? The subject matter? The characters? I compared these findings with my own manuscript and started the re-writes. In addition, I started reading more books about improving my own writing. Two books that helped me the most include: Plot & Structure Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers form start to finish by James Scott Bell (He is a wonderful person who has inspired many writers). The other book is Writing Fiction A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. This book was recommended by a senior editor at one of the publishing houses that rejected my novel. This second book is really serious and just like the senior editor promised, it takes your writing to a higher level. However, the $75 list price makes it a real investment in your writing career, and the exercises do take time. But it’s worth it. I feel that my manuscript is now (hopefully) publish worthy.

So what did I learn from my own analysis of best selling fiction? I noticed that Karen Kingsbury typically doesn’t include “said” in her character dialogue. She instead has some kind of action tagged to the conversation that keeps the story moving forward. And of course her characters and stories are always compelling. After reading both of the “how to” books on writing fiction, I realized that the beginning of my book needed to start at a later point with a greater moment of conflict. That change has made a real difference in my novel.

I also consulted the experts, including a dear friend of mine, best selling author, Robin Jones Gunn. She gave me some great advice. “Put more of ‘your voice’ in the story. Dig deep from that well of your own experience and emotion and put that into the novel.” In reading some of my existing passages, I sounded more like a banker instead of a novelist – reporting the facts, not letting the characters express the raw emotion of their unique situations.

Bottom line, don’t give up! I’m saying this myself and to you. If there is a story that is bubbling inside your heart, write it! As my dad wrote in my first Writers’ Marketplace book many decades ago, “Write. Write. Write. Polish. Polish. Polish. Publish. Publish. Publish.”

Take-away Tidbit:
1) An excerpt from Writing Fiction quoting Lorrrie Moore: “..the proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook makes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what’s in the cupboard.”

2) An excerpt from Plot & Structure “Deepening is to the novel as spice is to food. This chord of fiction is generally not a full scene. It is, instead, what you add to the mix to deepen the reader’s understanding of character or setting. Make it fresh, drop it in strategically, and the flavor will be exquisite.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From Finance to Fiction

Writing a novel is more difficult than being a New York City banker. I know this first hand. For seven years, I worked in the corporate finance area of one of the largest banks in New York. As a young woman from Alabama, I ended up in the fast paced lane near Wall Street. I loved it there, and I loved the man I met there. We got married and our first daughter was born at Mount Sinai Hospital during one of the hottest summers New York City ever had.

We moved our young family to the Chicago area. My plans were to return part time to the world of finance, but this option was not available. I did some consulting work for the bank where I worked, but after the many bank mergers and another new baby, the door closed. So what to do next?

People always say that you will end up doing what you loved to do in third grade. Miss Cook, my third grade teacher at Brookwood Forest Elementary School pulled me aside when I was nine years old and told me, “One day you will write books.” I loved to write. In high school, I was on the newspaper staff and was even voted Most Creative in Writing during my senior year. (On a side note, it’s the same high school that Courteney Cox and Natalie Holloway attended). In college I was the editor for the editorial section of the paper. But the lure of international business enticed me to earn a master’s degree in international business at The University of South Carolina. I learned Portuguese and did an internship in the treasury department at IBM Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Right after graduate school, I got a job in New York.

As an unemployed new mom in the Chicago suburbs, I applied for a free lance position at the local newspaper. Soon, I had my own neighborhood column. I heard about Write to Publish on a local radio station and attended my first writers’ conference. I met a wonderful acquisitions editor from Thomas Nelson and sold my first book – a gift book called A Mother’s Heart Knows. My entry into the publishing world officially began. In a separate blog, I will write about how I found my first literary agent. It was through a wrong phone number!

Five years ago, I discovered a passion to write a novel. It wasn’t an epiphany, just a subtle realization.

I was at a cooking class and thought that this would be the perfect setting for a novel. So it began….. And yes, five years later, I am still working on it (the cooking and the writing). It’s the most challenging yet invigorating endeavor I have ever undertaken. A love hate relationship. Conflict. All wonderful ingredients for a story and a blog. This blog will be like putting a meal in a slow cooker. I want to fill the posts with some bits of my life, encompassing finance, food, faith and of course fiction. Also, I want to hear from you. Please share your thoughts and recipes with me. Thank you, and let the journey begin!

Take-out Tidbits
1) For aspiring writers, sign up for a local writers’ conference. It’s a great way to dip your pen into the publishing world and meet with editors and learn more writing skills.

2) For aspiring cooks, remember to add fresh herbs to the pan last. If they’re added too soon, the herbs will lose flavor.

3) Collect your pennies that fall into the sofa cushions and under the car seats. Put the coins into a mason jar. Each month deposit it into a savings account for yourself or your kids. You’ll be amazed how quickly the account adds up!

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