The Plague

It started as a tickle, an annoyed bee trying to get our attention until, finally, it swooped in, stinger first and left, in its wake, three people with boxes of tissues and cups of honeyed tea.

The doctor’s words sounded far too tame for what we were feelings. “Virus.” “Ear infection.” “Something that’s going around.” I wanted to hear, “A touch of the plague.” Instead, we were given a speech about liquids and rest, antibiotics and cough drops. We were sent home where we huddled together on the couch, sharing germs and blankets while the first week of the year passed us by.

While I’m never too far from my beloved romance novels, I am–as most writers are–a voracious reader. My mom used to tease that I’d read the back of a cereal box if I couldn’t find a book–and she wasn’t wrong. Growing up in a house without television and where books were our primary source of entertainment, I read everything I could get my hands on. From slim volumes of poetry to massive tomes outlining the downfall of the Russian aristocracy to tell-all biographies of the stars of classic films, I devoured them with a hunger that could never seem to be abated.

Everyone told me, when I graduated high school, that I’d have less time to read as an adult but I ate through books like the hungry caterpillar, consuming novels and nonfiction alike. When my ex-husband and I moved in together, one of our first fights was over my reading habit. He couldn’t understand why I’d read when there were other things to do. I couldn’t understand why reading a book wasn’t the first thing on his list.

When I got pregnant, veteran mothers told me to enjoy my books before the baby came because afterwards, I wouldn’t have time to read. I argued there was always time to read and ignored their smug looks. My son was born and I was right. There was always time to read. I read short stories while pumping, novels while laying on the couch with my baby sleeping on my chest, and children’s books while he played at my feet. When my daughter was born, I read as I nursed her, reading passages out loud in a hushed voice while the house slept.

It makes sense, then, that my children are also readers. I see the same fanatical fire burning in my son’s eyes when he starts a series, the same covetous look on my daughter’s face when presented with a shelf of unread books. Which is why, when we were sent home sick, we found ourselves sprawled around the living room under blankets with a pile of books at our sides. Because there’s nothing quite as healing as a good story.

Joseph revisited his Goosebumps, dumping them in a pile next to the couch as he finished them. Elizabeth dived into her graphic novels, letting Raina Telgemeier be her guide. And I picked through my pile of “to be read” books, finding treasure.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I’d argue sometimes you should do just that. I bought The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan because its cover called to me. The slate blue and watercolor flowers, the hidden items, the promise of something lovely. That the story and the writing were as beautiful as the cover, was a treat. The prose read like poetry, gently weaving an ever-so-slightly magical spell.

And as I closed the cover and smoothed my hands over the roses painted on the front, I sighed and felt that perhaps having the plague is not as bad as all that if I get to read something divine.

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Entering a New Year

The week between Christmas and January 1 contains the highest concentration of navel gazing in my year. (Second is, of course, the week leading up to my birthday when I contemplate what I’ve learned and forgotten over the course of my trip around the sun.) There is something about the idea of a fresh start that appeals to all of us, I think. It’s a new notebook, freshly sharpened pencils, a blank calendar…the possibilities of being more organized, healthier, a better person than the currently flawed version of ourselves.

Plus it’s a challenge and there’s nothing more appealing, I’ve noticed, than a challenge.

I wonder, sometimes, if it’s an American thing–this need to throw ourselves into impossible situations for the sole reason of saying, “I did it.” We don’t seem to have the ability to back down from a dare–even one we give ourselves. We are a people who have hot dog eating contests and gruelling cross country sled races. Dares and challenges are woven into our history and celebrated with a high gloss sheen that ignores the truth. (A habit we still have if social media is anything to go by.) I read the other day about the hygge challenge and laughed. We are so in love with challenges, we’ve turned the art of cozy relaxation and quiet introspection into one.

There’s a part of me that loves that about us. I love the passion and drive and even the obsession.

There’s another part of me who looks into the mirror and sees the dark circles under my own eyes as I strive to write a novel in thirty days. That same part of me picks at the food on my plate as I wish for a non-compliant cheese to complement the whole foods on my plate. It’s the part of me fretting over unmet goals, worrying over self-imposed deadlines passing by, and looking with envy at the seeming ease with which my peers publish book after book.

I’ve spent much of 2017 thinking about priorities and goals and the point of it all. I am, after all, 42 now and we all know that’s the age in which we are supposed to find out the meaning of life. In a culture as obsessed with youth as it is with challenges, it’s easy to think that perhaps I somehow lost the “I want to be an author who writes for a living” challenge. It’s a bit late for me to hole up in a garret with my fingerless gloves and be a starving artist. Honestly, I like cheese far too much to give it up at this point and we all know cheese is expensive and not on the grocery list of any legitimate starving artist. Ramen is, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered my body doesn’t really love sodium.

As I navel gazed over the past week, an column popped up in my timeline and cemented the idea that Facebook can now read my mind. In the New York Times Ask Roxane column by Roxane Gay, someone – two someones – asked, “Is it too late to follow my dreams?”

I, of course, clicked and read with a salute to Zuckerberg for knowing my thoughts and sending help.

One bit stood out to me:

“The older we get, the more culturally invisible we become, as writers, as people. But you have your words. Writing and publishing are two very different things.”

The publishing world has changed even if the public perception of it is firmly set in the 1934 version. In modern publishing, a writer has to be a marketing specialist, a technology genius, and keep her fingers on the pulse of a rapidly changing platform. In some of my writing groups, authors are churning out dozens of books a year, getting them in front of readers with a savvy I don’t fully understand let alone possess.  It’s overwhelming and exhausting and saps at my soul.

But then the advice continues:

“Other writers are not your measure….The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work.”

I sat back in my chair and sent a prayer of thanks to St. Mark of Facebook for sending these words to me just as I opened my fresh notebook to begin my New Year’s Resolutions.

While I’m aware enough to realize I will end 2018 much the same person with the same habits, I also know every now and again, something sticks. Sometimes it will be something small. (NY Resolution 2013: Make my bed daily.) Sometimes it will be big. (NY Resolution 2014: Write a book.) Sometimes it won’t matter to anyone but me. (NY Resolution 2010: Reduce consumption of meat to twice a week.) And sometimes, it will change everything. (NY Resolution 2016: Finalize my divorce.)

This year, I have writing goals, but instead of tying them to my publishing goals, I’m splitting them up, divorcing them from each other in a way my brain can recognize. Two separate filing cabinets, two separate rooms, and a dishy personal assistant to manage them both while fetching me tea. I also have personal goals, more amorphous than “lose weight” or “get healthy”. They are hard to pen down on the little slips of paper we use to fill our goal jar, but I’m closer, I think, to understanding how it all fits together.

I will throw them all at the freshly painted wall of 2018 and see, in a year, what sticks.

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Finding Joy: Challenge Accepted

Over the weekend, as I sat on the shores of a lake with my toes in the water and a glass of Prosecco dripping condensation on my hand, I had a bit of an epiphany. (Though I’m not sure I can call it an epiphany when it’s really a continuation of a thought that started back last summer.)

My arms were still shaking from a frantic race around a distant buoy in a kayak, my legs a bit trembly from a second race toward a closer buoy – while standing up and backwards because why not. The unseasonably warm weather had brought pink to my cheeks and my stomach ached from laughing at my competitors’ attempts. The sun was low in the sky and painted the hillside as orange as the leaves from my apple tree.

It was a stolen moment of joy made all the sweeter by its lack of intention.

My holiday weekend plans included marathon writing sessions at my favorite coffee shop. I had my talisman rings, my word count goals, a general idea of the direction the book needs to go. I was ready to write, to meet the NaNoWriMo challenge I’d accepted on November 1 because unless it comes to running actual marathons or getting up before dawn to go to the gym, I’m a finisher. I set myself to what I want to accomplish and then go for it.

I’ve NaNo’d three times and, three times, I’ve completed my word count by the skin of my teeth. I’ve set everything aside and pushed through hours of writing. I’ve turned down invitations to be with friends, time with my children, and piles of books waiting to be read all for the self-imposed goal of finishing 50,000 words in 30 days. And then, on December 1, I would put away my bare novel and not look at it again for months as if my brain had depleted itself of nouns and verbs and could only conjure adverbs.

This year, though, I couldn’t.

Not to say I didn’t write! I have a solid 28K words and…no real idea how I’m going to finish this trilogy. The characters aren’t speaking to me the way Candace and Remmings did. They’re not running through a forest, getting drunk with older brothers, or battling wits. The 28K words includes scenes with my favorite people, but something felt off. The story isn’t ready to end.

I’m not sure what that means, but what I do know is that I’m not going to rush it for an arbitrary challenge.

So I gave up.

I quit.

I quit and I spent my writing weekend playing Yahtzee and trying to paddle a kayak while standing up. I ate smashed burgers with cheese oozing from the sides. I listened to music from my 20s, rode shotgun on a winding country road with my boyfriend laughing at a podcast. I slept under the stars and pulled the sleeping bag over my head to block out the sounds of the serial killers lurking behind a pine.

I quit and spent my Saturday morning baking a pake, two actually. I patiently moved my oven racks around until they were baked and ready to be taken to work to be added to a giant stack of sweetness.

 

I quit and went to the movies with my children, crying through a story of Wonder and another of life after death. I savored lines from the screen like fine chocolate, letting them melt in my mouth with all their beauty. I turned on Christmas carols and supervised the kids decorating the tree, the scent of pine and cinnamon filling the house.

I found joy in not accepting a challenge, in quitting.

And in doing so, I also found another story. Something a little sweeter, a little softer, a little less epic. I found a new character with a glasses that slip down her nose and a penchant for knitting hats and completing crossword puzzles in an actual newspaper. I found a man who is broken beyond all hope of a happily ever after until he walks through a door and picks up a dropped scarf, catching a whiff of Christmas.

There’s no hurry.

There’s no reason to rush.

There’s no reason to let the art monster control my life.

There’s every reason to stop, to soak in the moments, and to find joy.

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Beginning the Ending

The calendar says we’re well into fall, but California likes to resist the call of winter and the end of the year with one last heatwave to remind us of summer and make us wish it wasn’t dusk as we drive home from work. But even the Sunshine State gives in eventually and we exchange flip-flops for closed toes.

I walked into Bru on Sunday while the air was cold enough to send goosebumps racing up my arms. A light sweater and bare legs were no match for the overnight drop in temperature from a blistering 103 to a nearly frigid 56.

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The wait staff who makes sure my tea is hot and reminds me to eat, glanced over in surprise. It was earlier than usual. I smiled and told them today was the day I was going to finish my second draft of “Elemental Escape”. Reassurance that the coffee shop doesn’t close until six were added to the pot of Earl Grey and warmed berry scone.

I planted myself in my spot and opened my laptop. Six hours later, I stretched and stood, ignoring the pain in my hips and back from sitting too long in a wooden chair. It was done.

I sent “Elemental Escape” to five trusted beta readers and opened a new project because November 1 means NaNoWriMo and if there’s one thing I know about my writing process it’s that I need an inordinate amount of perceived pressure to keep me moving and drag me away from the stack of novels begging to be read.

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“Elemental Escape” was my NaNo project last year and, barring any major overhaul suggestions by my betas, should be released early next year. Which means it’s time to begin the end.

When I wrote “Elemental Awakening” there was a secondary character who sauntered into my head with his rumbled auburn hair and untucked plaid shirts. He leaned back at his desk, swiveling in his chair while he stared at the ceiling. He was old but looked so very young and when he removed the clear lensed glasses he wore as a mask, exhaustion shadowed his eyes.

He’s had a rough go of it, but he’s been patient. Now, though, it’s time to tell his story.

Unless…

Except…

What if this trilogy was a quartet?

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Character Development

Every summer, my day job powers down and I find myself working four ten hour days with blissfully long weekends at the end of them. And every summer, I drop the kids off at their summer care and hole up to use those free days to write.

Except, every summer, I stare off into space and type meaningless words until it’s been an hour or two and I can legitimately go get my kids and have an adventure.

Then, at the end of every summer, I look at the seven Fridays and don’t see a corresponding number of words on my page and writer’s guilt twinges. I look at my children and think of the lazy mornings we should have had and mother’s guilt twinges. After all, with split custody, every moment spent with them is precious. Yet, as a writer, the stories churn in my head and the characters nag. It’s the working mother’s dilemma played out in an over active imagination and every summer, we start the school year and I feel a little…less.

This year I decided enough was enough.

I looked at my children – Joseph who is almost as tall as I am and Elizabeth who is losing the baby fat on her cheeks. I did the math, not usually my strong suit, but easy in this case. At the most, I have six summers with Joe and nine with Liz. I can keep my fingers crossed they’ll still want to hang with mom during college breaks, but when it comes to absolutes…I have a handful of summers left with them.

And then? I’ll have decades of Fridays to write.

The solution was easy.

I took a summer vacation from writing. I took a summer vacation from word counts, edits, spell checks, and research. I took a summer vacation from notebooks and red pens and plot holes.

I focused on character development. Our character development.

We swam in the Pacific off the coast of Mexico, eating tuna caught by friends and drinking out of coconuts. We shot down waterslides aptly named “The Wedgie”. We danced at concerts in the park. We rode our bikes while the sun turned our faces red. We had lazy mornings of Doctor Who and tea and pondered the mysteries of the universe. We bought six new chicks and watched them grow. We ate BBQ in a barn while the sunset lit the hills on fire. We got henna tattoos and cinnamon rolls at the fair. We escaped the heat to watch a webslinger do his thing. We bought a new hammock and whiled away hours crammed in it together like peas while absorbed in our books.

It’s not over yet. There are still three more weeks of summer. Three weeks where there will be camping, a train ride, a boardwalk carnival. Three more weeks of sleepovers and swimming pools and silver fake tattoos. Three more weeks of picking tomatoes in the garden and building a chicken coop and a solar eclipse. Three more weeks of character development.

And then, while the California sun continues to bake, they’ll head back to school with packs filled with freshly sharpened pencils and I’ll start working five days a week again.

I’ll kiss them goodbye on Friday evenings and tell them to have fun with their dad. I’ll brew a pot of tea on Saturday mornings and open up my laptop. I’ll look at the notes by dear writing partners gave me and I’ll get to work while the tan fades from my shoulders and the taste of coconut and smell of salt air lingers in my memory.

There will be not an ounce of guilt.

That’s what I call character development.

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Time for a Giveaway!

 

Thirteen has always been my lucky number. Partly because I was born on the 13th and partly because I had a theory, as a kid, that the unluckiest number must actually be the luckiest because people avoided it, thereby leaving it luck-full. While I still haven’t won the lottery with my lucky 13, I have won in Las Vegas betting on red 13.

So, when Steve delivered this gorgeous hickory chacuterie board to be given away to a lucky reader/follower/random stranger who hits up giveaway, I knew I’d have to launch it on Friday the Thirteenth.

Entering is easy. Just follow the instructions on the handy-dandy rafflecopter thingy below. The giveaway will be open for a week and the winner chosen at random. The winner will have 24 hours to get back to me before the next name is drawn.

Good luck!

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Go Team!

A little over a week ago, I put out a call for people to join my street gang – I mean team. (Side note: You do realize if I formed a street gang, we’d all be wearing leather jackets and saying, “Tell me about it stud” while doing our secret “Birth to earth, womb to tomb” handshake. There’s also a high probability of finger snapping and red high heels.)

After reviewing applications, I was able to narrow the selection down to ten amazing ladies. I’m so excited to welcome the inaugural crew of Elementally Awesome:

Sunday B.
Jennifer B.

Julie G.
Sarah G.
Christen F.
Katrina P.
Kirsten P.
Roxanne P.
Cheryl R.
Maxine S.
Alexa V.

(This is the part where I’d be popping champagne corks and pouring glasses of bubbly if, you know, everyone was in the same room.)

I’m so excited to have this amazing group of ladies on staff, so to speak, to help me get the word out. I have so many fun things planned and can’t wait to get started!

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Romance Novels are for Dudes Too

10647191_10205060532105861_4977278825112904127_nThis is my dad.

He grew up running barefoot in the forest of the Ozarks and joining his dad on  moonshine runs across county lines. He has, at different times in his life, rode rodeo, topped trees, worked a farm, cut firewood, hunted for furs, and worked in a factory. He likes his coffee black and boiled and stubbornly ignores the five women in his life as they plead for him to stop smoking. His body is covered in scars from knife fights, he was married four times before he met my mom when he was 27 – once to a Cuban woman who didn’t speak English, which was unfortunate because he didn’t speak Spanish – and was a proud Marine, though he’d say is rather than was because once a Marine always a Marine. He taught his daughters to play poker before they could read, is always armed, and drinks his coffee with a splash of Sailor Jerry.

And he loves romance novels.

He devours them by the dozen, working his way through Sandra Hill, Julia Quinn, Catherine Coulter, Nora Roberts, Christina Dodd, and dozens more even I have never heard of. He sits, with a dog at his feet, his coffee cup resting on the arm of the chair, and a paperback in his hand.

11025132_10205061468849279_6891454684742096596_nHe’s always been a reader; both of my parents are. Growing up, I rarely saw either without a book in their hands. My mom usually read standing up, back to the fireplace and cup of coffee on the mantel. With four kids, she had to steal the time to read and her drug of choice was romance novels.

My dad, however, was all about Westerns and sci-fi. Family legend says that when he rode rodeo, he had two beat up hardback suitcases – one filled with clothes – pearl snap button Western shirts, prized belt buckles, jeans, and the other filled with books. He kept carried a paperback in his back pocket, the binding cracked and the pages rolled to fit, and would lean against a barn wall or tree and read a book while he ate his lunch.

I grew up in a house where reading was our primary past-time and sneaking my mom’s romance novels my one act of rebellion. About ten years or so ago, my mom called me, laughing because Dad, retired and frustrated over the lack of books available to him, had picked up one of hers – a Jude Devereaux Western romance. He’d finished it in hours, announced that it was a damn good story, and proceeded to work his way through her entire collection. When he finished those, he haunted the used book store. When he ran out there, he determined that stealing from his oldest daughter’s collection was appropriate.

10433134_10205060531065835_7118001290583067953_n“A good story is a good story,” he says when anyone questions why a leather tough man would pick up a novel about love.

When it came time to promote Elemental Awakening, my finger hovered over the names of male friends, men who have been supportive of my goals and dreams. I twisted my lips and wondered if I should add them to a romance author’s page, if I should encourage them to read a love story.

Then, I remembered my dad and clicked the button because real men read romance novels.

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Do you want to join my street team?

I’m so excited to announce that I’m currently seeking members for my street team, Elementally Awesome!

(If you’re a long time reader, you knew I’d have to go cheesy with my team name. It’s what I do. New readers, it’s okay. I’m a dork and I’m totally fine with that.)

Between the release of Merry Little Christmas and my debut novel, Elemental Awakening, coming out soon, plus working on the sequel and an outline prepped for another Christmas serial this year, this little blog is starting to pick up speed and I’m so excited to share it with you all. If you feel that you’re someone who would get a kick out of being a bigger part of this world, take a moment and fill out the form. (And if you don’t, it’s totally okay. I mean, I’ll just be standing over here on the side of the gym as team captain while everyone avoids my eyes and pretends they can’t hear me when I try to pick them. Not that that has ever happened. Because, you know, I’ve always been super cool and stuff.)

Oh! And I should also explain. You don’t actually have to walk literal streets. You can do most anything from the comfort of your own home while wearing pajamas and drinking wine. Or whiskey. I won’t judge.

 

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Coming soon!

Something about this time of year makes me want to snug down with a good book and a nice cup of Earl Grey, but with the rush of the holidays upon us, sometimes a shorter story is the way to go. I’m pleased to announce a trio of delightful holiday short stories perfect to read while the turkey is roasting or the pies are baking…

mlc-coverUpon A Midnight Clear, by Angela Amman:

Julia’s high profile divorce left her financially free to do anything she wanted, except fulfill the dreams she lost in an accident a decade before. Something stronger than a whim draws her to a storefront in the nearly forgotten town of Warden’s Bluff, New York, where visions of tiny dancers practicing their pliés under her careful instruction promise to fill that void.

Julia doesn’t deal in tomorrows, but Josh, who keeps crossing her path as Christmas settles over Warden’s Bluff, is the kind of man who just might change her mind… if she’s willing to take a chance on next year.

Star of Wonder, by Cameron D. Garriepy:

Ivy Brennan, former therapist, astronomy enthusiast, and self-declared goat lady is carving out a fresh start for herself in the woods outside Thornton, Vermont. Christmas is coming, but Ivy is more concerned with missing goats and approaching meteor showers.

Sterling West is crashing with his uncle at the family Christmas tree farm since his ex-fiancée sold their apartment out from under him. He’s bagging trees and picking up freelance web design jobs while he figures out what to do next, and where the best stargazing is.

Ivy’s sister, Sterling’s uncle, four goats, and the Geminid meteor shower conspire to bring Sterling and Ivy together as the holiday approaches, but connections neither Ivy nor Sterling are aware of tangle like last-year’s Christmas lights, threatening to trip up their newfound attraction.

The Rarest Gift, by Mandy Dawson

For restaurateurs Sabrina and Mark, dissolving their marriage was simpler than dissolving Buchons’ – the dream Sabrina thought they were building together – but nothing about their separate-but-together existence is easy anymore.

An unlikely angel arrives in Mark’s life while he flirts with culinary self-sabotage. Sabrina explores drastic measures to save the floundering restaurant. Both of them find themselves reflecting on the bitterness that drove them apart, and the sweetness beneath it until a family emergency forces the pair to reevaluate the flavor of partnership, dreams, and love that won’t quit.

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