Suprise! It’s a Book!

The most surprising thing for me about being published was how much fun it sucked out of writing. I don’t suppose an agent, editor, or marketing person ever intends to suck the joy out of someone else’s life, but my experience with the publishing industry has been that mostly it’s a joy suck. I went from writing with a gleeful eagerness to staring at the computer screen in annoyance and spending far more time on marketing than I ever predicted.


2015-06-23 10.43.53I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by it. As a graphic designer by trade, I have a keen understanding of the collaborative nature of creating art that meets the needs of multiple user groups. If you don’t know what that means, then may God bless you and keep you in that state. Graphic Design (in my case specializing in print and signage) is an artistic endeavor designed to inform a consumer about a particular item, message, or company. I could spend a books worth on the craft of graphic design, but basically it is a balancing act between my vision as an artist and the vision of a client. In an ideal situation, both visions mesh to create art. In the worst case scenario, someone who thinks they could do your job if only they knew more about “the Photoshop” stands behind you and tells you what to do.

But writing was something that was mine – completely, gloriously – mine. I wrote my first published novel Bulletproof Mascara to please myself. Every day of writing was like falling down the rabbit hole and discovering what came next. Some days were harder than others, but each day I spent with my imaginary friends was fun. When the manuscript was complete, I made the edits suggested by beta readers because I agreed with them. Everything I did for that first book was because I liked it that way.

Then came New York. There were changes (more changes), changing editors, (changing economy) and suggestions that I “work on plotting,” work on this… work on that… Basically, stop pantsing it. Stop dropping down the rabbit hole. Stop having fun. Sit up straight. Brush your teeth. Cut your hair. Get a real job.

OK, maybe no one ever actually said those last few. But it felt like that.

So why stick with it?

Oh, sigh. That’s the worst part. Because it made me a better writer. My plotting did need work. My “perfect” text can always stand to be pared back, because damn, but I do get verbose on occasion. And let’s face it, the things I don’t know about grammar will continue to infuriate copyeditors for years to come even as I slowly improve. Then, it turns out, that marketing (AKA talking to readers) is actually enjoyable. Who knew?

It took me awhile to reclaim the joy in writing, but self-publishing a few short stories and the kind comments of readers helped. I now look forward to my next adventures in writing and hope that you will too.

The Accent Mark Goes… Here

You know how Madonna now talks with a British accent?  And everyone kind of mocks her?  It is annoying to have someone you know grew up in Michigan try and sound all posh, but at the same time… I would be the same way.  I once realized that I had been watching twenty minutes of a cooking show with an Australian host and I had no idea what was being made.  I’d spent the entire time watching her mouth trying to figure out how she was murdering pronouncing her vowels that way.  I sounded like a monkey on the couch as I clenched and unclenched my teeth trying “ehhh-oooh-uh” my vowels.  I was two seconds away from throwing a shrimp on the barbie when my husband came home and gave me the look that implied that while our marriage was a joy and a blessing, it was also occasionally weird.

The unfortunate thing is that, just as I’m addicted to copying other people’s accents, I find that I’m also prone to picking up the language of whomever I’m reading.  I’m sure my writing/reading group can tell when I’ve been reading Regency Romances.  One cannot help but be addicted to the opulent turn of phrase.  And if I could work some sort of line about puce satin and a cravat into the paragraph all the better.  What if I’m reading fluffy chick lit?  Pretty sure that my character needs to mention her thighs and a cupcake in the next sentence.  Taut thrillers? Sentences get shorter.  Characters become brutal. And adverbs?  Kill ‘em.  Kill ‘em all.

The brutal snuffing out of “suddenly” aside, this habit does real damage to my narratives.  Characters don’t sound like themselves (why does that Texan sound English?) and plots can veer wildly off course as I spend a page (or three) describing clothing.  So when I’m writing I have to take a bit of a hiatus from reading unless I can find that wondrous book that matches the tone that I’m writing.  I think it’s incredibly unfair that my reading has suffered as a result of my writing, but currently it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.  Of course, if I could just figure out how to retire with a million dollars so that I could segregate my year into reading quarters and writing quarters life would be awesome.

Author Diaries: Day 1

I was recently sitting with a group of friends discussing a book we’d all read recently (Perfect Likeness by J.M. Phillippe – group consensus: two thumbs up, funny and touching!).  But then the conversation turned to whether or not the author had left room for a sequel.  Some thought there was definitely going to be a sequel, while others read the slightly open-ended conclusion as the perfect metaphor for the books message about depression.  Since we happen to know the author, it was a simple matter of waiting until she returned from the bar with her cocktail, so that we could ask her.  But the entire argument reminded me of the very first public reading I did of my own writing.

I was 19 and I’d just won third place in a contest for Just Between You and Me, a short-story of a high-school girl who sells her English teacher a sense of humor.  There was an awards ceremony and the top three all read their stories.  I was incredibly nervous.  I’d practiced, but still read too fast and killed one of the jokes.  But by the time I was done, I felt triumphant.  I’d read, and people had clapped.  And not just people in my family.  Actual people.

And then the audience was allowed to ask questions.

Whoever invented audience participation was a sadist.  Who wants the audience to participate?  Don’t you know that when they participate they ask questions?  Questions that I had never considered in the entire breadth of my imagination that anyone would ever actually ask.  A few years later, I discovered that I might be a masochist, because audience particpation suddenly seemed fun.  But this was my Day 1 as an AUTHOR and I was totally unprepaTheCollective_Kobo-1126x1800red for THE QUESTION.  It was delivered by forty-something guy who seemed to have really enjoyed the story, but asked this doozy: “Did she really sell a sense of humor?”

But… but… that questions the very foundation of my story.  If you didn’t buy into the premise how could you like it? I left ambiguity on purpose.  Did you not enjoy the ambiguity?  Does this mean the story was bad?  How do I answer that?  What does this meannnnnn???!!! <- insert author confidence down spiral here.
A few years later, with more writing and more experience, I would have replied, “Yes, she did.  How did you enjoy your first visit to the Fantasy section of the bookstore? There are many more books like this out there – don’t be afraid to experiment.”  Instead, I sort of fish flapped my mouth for a second or two and said something vague like, “That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.”  Which, again, with more years and writing experience later, I’ve recognized as sub-conscious code for, “I wasn’t able to decide either, but I’m not telling you that, you impertinent person.”

I did eventually decide.  Ariana, the young person in question, really did sell a sense of humor.  You can read Just Between You and Me and more about Ariana’s adventures in my collection of Tales from the City of Destiny.  And as for the sequel status of Perfect Likeness?  Well, you will either have to read and decide for yourself, or follow the authors suggested solution – bribery.  Preferably with cocktails and cake.

Entry Fee Collected at the Door

It’s election season. And you know what that means. Lot’s of people talking smack about candidates, and trying to persuade me to vote, give money, participate, belong, think about the future, just doooooooo something. And it’s true. I should do one or all of those things. After all, isn’t the entry fee to any society the participation in their events?

Joy of Missing OutAs I was pondering this deep, philosophical point, I got distracted by an idea on how to create a light saber for my daughters Halloween costume (she’s going to be Yoda) and then I pondered lunch, then work, then I wondered who was in charge of Princess Leia’s hair on set. Was there a hair wrangler? By the time I made it back to democracy, I had clearly demonstrated how easy it is to NOT perform my civic duty – simply get distracted by life. Which led me to wonder, is connecting with the writing community difficult for the same reasons? Do writers miss out on connecting in person, on being a literary citizen, because… Star Wars?

Probably not. My reasons for occasionally not participating in the greater writer community, aren’t generally because I’m building a death star. (Although, really, death star’s take a lot of time, so jeez, get off my back Emperor.) My reasons for not participating usually looks more like this comic from The Oatmeal.

The original entry fee to the writing community, the one I paid when I was quite small, was to read, quietly in the privacy of my own home and then write something, usually a bad something. I have paid that fee about 16million times over. But progressing in one’s writing career means paying a different kind of fee. You must talk to people – actual people – as opposed to the fictional people I usually talk to.

I recently participated in my local Lit Night, put on by Creative Colloquy. Each literary night, allows time for a roster of readers, and then some open mic time. The Colloquy group is incredibly supportive of writers and encourages an atmosphere of positive support. Participating reminded me that actual people aren’t that bad, and that listening to others works gives perspective on my own. My political party of choice, might Introverts Unite!, but being with other writer’s does give me the warm glow of community that is hard to achieve from my couch. So, if you have the urge to be a literary citizen, I recommend paying the fee – go, interact, don’t build a death star. You’ll have a good time, I promise.

The Reality of Research

On Sale Nov. 17, 2015!

On Sale Nov. 17, 2015!

I don’t always go on vacation, but when I do I prefer to call it research. Part of the fun in writing the Carrie Mae Mysteries featuring a group of super-spy girls is that my characters travel around the world to exotic locales. Which means that if I want to have authenticity in my writing I also need to travel to exotic locales. The problem with this experiential approach to research is that you find yourself thinking, “Where can I find an AR-15 to shoot?” or in the case of my latest manuscript, “Where can I find a plane to jump out of?”

Don’t ask about the boots. I emulate my characters actions, not their keen fashion sense.
As it turns out, the AR-15 is not so hard to find (I called my brother). But jumping out of a plane is a little more expensive and even if you get a Groupon you still only get to tandem jump. And since I have an 18 month old, I don’t really have $200 to throw around on random research. Also, when I mention my new research need (my need for speed) suddenly everyone’s all “But you could die!” Apparently when you become a mother people become even more likely to judge your actions – who knew? And in response I would like to point out that, number one, of course I could die! That’s the point of doing 90% of the fun things in life. And number two, I’m not going to. In 2014 there were 3.2 million jumps and 24 deaths. I’m literally more likely to get hit by bus.

SkydivingBeing the person that I am, that kind of nonsense makes me want to jump out of a plane more just to prove that I won’t die. But that doesn’t change the fact that I still don’t have to $200 to waste on jumping out of a plane for a not truly accurate experience of what it feels like to fly yourself. (But hear this world – I’m not jumping out of a plane because I said so, not because you said so.) But then my genius mother-in-law came up with a great idea (and a great gift): indoor skydiving. It’s a giant wind-tunnel, less than half the cost, and all of the free fall experience. And what did I learn? It’s a lot harder than it looks. And uses a lot more muscles than you might think. And it’s fun. That’s my kind of research.

Welcome to Hell

Promotion, for a writer, is the seventh ring of hell. By nature we are quiet types who like to sit at home in our PJ’s, eating things like cereal and wine out of boxes and inventing people to talk to. (Yes, I’m aware that’s also the description of crazy people, but I don’t think we need to point that out at this juncture – thank you very much.) So promoting the book, being out in the public, is a terrible fate. Only slightly less awful is talking about promotions in front of other authors. (Oh God, oh God, oh God, what if I’ve been doing it wrong? They’re all going to know I’m a fraud!) But since my other job is a graphic designer, I’m privy to a great marketing secret: you can’t do it wrong because none of it works. Or all of it works depending on your point of view.

Legend has it that when Google presented all their brand new ways of tracking online digital ads to Viacom President and one-time ad man Mel Karmazin, he blurted out, “You’re fucking with the magic!” But the paradigm of ads and marketing being more art than science is still more true than anyone would like to admit, even in this age where digital data practically streams from our ears. Digital tracking will accurately tell you when and where a sale was made, but it never fully encompasses why a sale was made. But at the end of the day, one thing is still true, the only sure fire way to make a sale is to tell someone that you have a product for sale. Marketing is just selecting how you’re going to tell someone about your product.

I’m not a marketing expert, but I know enough to get myself in trouble. So I’ve tried a variety of promotional vehicles that break down into three basic categories: on-line, print, and person to person. By far and away the most successful vehicles are person to person. People telling other people, or the author telling someone to go buy their book works better than just about anything else. (I once sold a book to my state representative when she came doorbelling for votes.) But in the end, you can’t reach everyone you might want to reach in person.

My print experience has been minimal and I think we can all agree that newspapers are dying, so I’ll just skip straight to on-line. I’ve tried Facebook ads & boosts, newsletter ads, and google ads, just to name a few. And in my experience, very few of these things work optimally alone. I get the best results when I do multiple things at once – run a sale and an ad, and then boost the sale on Facebook. This shotgun approach makes it hard to track the mythical beautiful data of click-throughs, but it is very clear when I take one channel away that sales dip. The hard part comes at the end, when I must assess the ROI (Return on Investment) and whether or the sales justify the expense of a particular marketing channel.

UnseenCurrent-DigitalCoversEach author must find what works for them. My only real words of advice are to keep trying. Keep talking. And keep writing. And by the way, have I mentioned that I have a book on sale? An Unseen Current – a great late summer read for only $4.99.

This Mystery Needs More Unicorns

When I was younger, I wrote strictly to entertain myself and I preferred action-oriented fantasies with an amazing heroine. I loved to read those books, so that’s what I set out to write. And if I pictured myself writing a novel it was going to be the next Lord of the Rings, but with a way higher estrogen factor. Which, although I love LoTR, would not be hard to do considering that it has a total chick quantity of four (Sam’s Girlfriend, Eowyn, Galadriel and Arwen aka Strider’s Girlfriend). Anyway, that’s what I thought I’d write: fantasy’s where chick’s in chain mail prod buttock and take nomenclature.

You know what I write now? Mysteries.

I never thought I’d write mysteries. Sure, I read lots of them growing up, but at the end of the day, all that business with clues and alibis and clever methods of death, well, it seemed like a lot of work for the writer. And it turns out, that it is in fact a lot of work. Admittedly, my heroines still apply foot to backsides on a regular basis. And my most popular series the Carrie Mae Mysteries have an element of fantasy (What if door-to-door make-up sales ladies were also top notch spies?), but usually my plots run along to the lines of “Someone’s been murdered! We need to find out who killed them and stop them from doing it again!” Which is… a mystery.

A few years ago, I decided to return to my fantasy roots and self-published a collection of short stories under the heading of Tales from the City of Destiny. These paranormal tales featured vampires, a dragon, werewolves, the devil a Native American shaman, and a half-faerie heroine. Can’t get much more fantasy than that, right? Except my shaman was also a police detective and my half-faerie heroine was your pretty typical private citizen investigator and the rest of the stories are populated by lawyers, strippers, college students, and a 15-year old runaway. Apparently, I can’t leave mysteries behind even when I try.

UnseenCurrent-DigitalCoversSo at long last, I have decided to embrace my inner mystery writer. My most recent release, An Unseen Current, is a straight mystery with a cantankerous ex-CIA agent and his granddaughter solving crime in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. (Digital edition on sale for $1.99 through 7/8!) This book was a joy to write, mostly because I simply HAD to research the location, which meant driving around Orcas Island and eating really good food. The lesson here? Maybe writing a mystery isn’t so bad after all.

Whodunnit, American Style


Orcas Island, the setting for my latest novel, An Unseen Current, is the largest of the San Juan Islands.  Now, with names like those I know you’re picturing some other south of the equator island, where the palm fronds sway and whales frolic off-shore.  You’d be right about the whales, but thanks to a 1790’s Spanish explorer who was anxious to impress his boss, the Viceroy of Mexico (Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo) the San Juan Islands are bit further North – in Washington State. So while, Orcas whales do indeed frolic, if you visit Orcas you’re more likely to be doused with rain and smacked by an evergreen bow than conked on the head by a coconut.  However, the San Juans do share some of the same cultural characteristics as the tropical islands we all picture.  Life there runs on island time, people do all know each other, and islanders learn to make do with the resources they have on hand.  Accessible only by ferry or seaplane, Orcas is full of artists, foodies, retirees, tourists, and those who just don’t really care for the hustle and bustle of the mainland. And if you’re a mystery writer, it’s the perfect place for a murder.

UnseenCurrent_Vook-600x899I’ve been visiting Orcas for most of my life.  My dad’s best friend lives there and summer visits were pretty normal (if you didn’t mind the glass outhouse), and it wasn’t until college that I recognized the murderous potential of Orcas. I was teaching a water safety class for girls at Camp Moran and I realized that it was the perfect setting for an American version of the classic “English Country House” mystery.  The English Country House mystery’s cropped up with invention detective fiction and featured an amateur sleuth dropped into a murder mystery when one of the guests at their house party is killed.  The amateur sleuth is practically forced to interfere since village police are clearly unsuited to handle the case, London police are practically unreachable, and by George, no one gets away with killing one of my guests!  On Orcas, although there are police, the nearest major crimes detective is a ferry ride away in Anacortes, the suspect pool is limited to the population of the island, and while my ex-CIA agent character, seventy-something Tobias Yearly, doesn’t think he owns the island, he does think he’s the most qualified to find who murdered his best friend.  Tobias, and his granddaughter Tish, must make their way through suspects from all over the island as they contend with a suspicious police detective, an angry baker, and killer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

As I wrote An Unseen Current I tried to capture all the quirkiness and beauty of Orcas, but also to show that even small towns and islands can hide a killer.  Now, hopefully, next time I visit, none of the locals take exception to that or I may find myself stuck in the glass outhouse with someone throwing stones.

Interview with a Girlfriend

One of the best things about being a part of a collective blog like the Girlfriends Book Club is that I have access to the collective wisdom of all the Girlfriends. As a relative newcomer to the group I’ve been catching up on old blogs, following the gals on twitter, and bumping a few of the Girlfriend books to the top of my reading list. For today’s blog I had a virtual sit down with Girlfriend Jess Riley and asked all the questions that I think readers should ask me.

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Jess Riley

Question 1 – Let’s cover the basics. Who are you and what do you write?
Uh-oh, I feel an existential crisis coming on! Let’s see…who is Navin Johnson. I mean Jess Riley. These days, I am up to my eyeballs in grant deadlines for my public school clients. When I’m not writing grant proposals or sending veggies through my new Spiralizer (awesome little gadget), I am writing novels…really, I am! I guess you could say I write chick lit that has a major crush on Jonathan Tropper and Shannon Olson? One of the biggest compliments I got recently was an unsolicited review for Mandatory Release from fellow Girlfriend Ellyn Oaksmith: “This is a quirky Indie movie of a book that would win all the prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. ” That made me blush, but it’s essentially what I’m going for with my writing and I love Ellyn for the compliment. Here’s the official bit about my books: Jess’s debut novel, DRIVING SIDEWAYS, was released by Random House in 2008. Selected as a Target Breakout Book, it’s now in its fourth printing. Other novels include ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE and MANDATORY RELEASE. Find her online at

Question 2 – What is the weirdest research you’ve ever done?
One of my secrets used to be lurking on message boards that would be frequented by people like my characters. The main character in Mandatory Release is a young man with a spinal cord injury; as I don’t know any such folks in real life, I dropped in on a few online communities and learned some specific & interesting pet peeves shared by people in wheelchairs. (Such as drunk girls wanting to sit on your lap, people trying to “steer you,” even hair clippings sticking to your hands if you had a hair-cut scheduled for a rainy day.) I actually found two young women with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) this way when I was researching Driving Sideways; they both graciously read early drafts of the novel, as I was keen to make sure the story honored and reflected the experience of a young woman with kidney disease.

Question 3 – What is the most uncomfortable piece of writing you’ve ever completed?
I hate any time I write about parents or siblings (which is ironic because All the Lonely People is all about parents and siblings). I always worry my family will think I’m writing about them.

Question 4 – What is your most memorable book promotion event?
Oh man, I have a zillion embarrassing stories about publicity-gone-wrong. One of the most shame-inducing stories is long, about my most recent book release party, but you can find it on my blog if you’re curious. I also laugh every time I think of the time I was stalking my book at Target–of course I’d check it out to see how many copies were in stock when I ran errands. I was still lurking in the book section when I overheard a young woman say to her boyfriend. “I don’t want a hardcover, I just want something funny and easy to read on vacation.” I took the last copy of Driving Sideways from the shelf and handed it to her. “Uh, I wrote this. You should take it on vacation with you.” She probably thought I was crazy, but she took it with her!

Question 5 – What is your favorite book or movie that everyone thinks you’re weird to love?

Book: One of my all-time favorites is The Stand by Stephen King. I always proselytize about this one!
Movie: This is a hard one, because my movie tastes are all over the map. But generally speaking, if it’s designed to be a big budget pander-fest with stock characters and beats straight out of Screenwriting 101, I’m out. I love anything weird, unexpected, clever, smart, funny: this is going to sound strange, but I really enjoyed both Dead Snow movies on Netflix. Campy…Norwegian…zombie Nazis? How could I resist!

Thanks to Jess Riley for her interview and even if you don’t see her in the book section at Target, you should probably still pick up her books!

Good Days & Bad Days

Originally posted on Girlfriends Book Club on 03.12.15

Writing, as a profession, has many drawbacks – low pay, near constant rejection, and of course, the perception that anyone with two fingers and maybe a toe for the spacebar can do whatever it is an author does. In popular imagination what a writer does seems to consist mainly of drinking, living in dilapidated, Miss Havesham-esque hovels, and pulling genius 500 page books out of their butt in 6 weeks or less. And most people think they could manage that – you know if they sat down and really tried. I’m not entirely sure what they base this on other than the fact that Havasham-esque dilapidated drinking while turning random crap into a term paper is how most people remember college.

Now physically it is possible that typing 40 words per minute for 6 hours a day (I’m leaving 2 hours per work day for eating, bathroom breaks, and cat videos) could get you a 500 page work in about 9 days. (40 words x 60 min. = 2400 words, 250 words per page = 9.6 pages per hour & 57.6 pages per day x 8.75 days = 504 pages with time left over for an extra cat video). The problem is that the words don’t already exist – they have to be invented, discovered, and strung together in the right way. Even for this blog (currently a mere 229, 230, 231 words) I’ve already deleted about as many words as I’ve written. You need words that not only mean the right thing, but sound like the thing, and conjure imagery so that the reader can see the right thing. Basically, finding the right words is not as easy as it looks. But it’s also one of the best things about writing.

Not every word I write is gold. But I have written a few things that have a beautiful symmetry, a fricative taste in the mouth, and leave a crunchy thought in the brain. Those are the good days. And those are the days that keep me pursuing writing. Because sometimes, if I work hard enough, I get to make something wonderful, artistic and meaningful.

But now here’s a picture of a cat in bread – because today is not one of those days.