Thursday, December 30, 2010

Guest Q and A with Barbara O'Neal author of How to Bake a Perfect Life

Welcome bestselling author Barbara O'Neal whose latest novel is a Target Breakout Pick!

What’s the backstory behind HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE?

I started thinking about motherhood, and the ways we screw it up even when we're trying very hard to be good mothers. My mother and grandmother had a difficult relationship, in which both parties were always trying to make it work better and they still had trouble. I also have a big Irish family that's meddling and wonderful, so that entered into it, too. The main character is a woman who gets a second chance at almost everything, even as it seems as if her life is falling apart all around her.

What was your greatest challenge in writing the novel?

Juggling all the storylines! I often write multiple points of view but there's even more than usual going on this book and keeping the time lines straight, the characters straight was a juggling trick. In the end, I was very pleased with the way it all meshed--Ramona's terrible summer, Katie's arrival, the faraway and desperate Sofia....

Food is a strong theme in at least two of your novels? Where does that come from? Are you an accomplished cook or do you simply like great food? What is one of your favorite dishes?

I don't know that I am particularly accomplished, but I love to cook and work hard at it. I hate indifferent food and wonder why I would bother to eat it, so I learned to cook well, to at least address the kinds of food and flavors I love, and I am a very good bread baker. My sourdoughs have won prizes.

Favorite dish? So many! A giant Honey Crisp apple with a couple of ounces of very good Gouda. Pork tamales. Macaroni and cheese. Soup of almost any variety (or maybe that's just because the WIP has a lot of soup!), but especially a spinach tortellini that's very simple and nourishing and satisfying. I suppose that would sum up my favorite dishes.

You have written 38 novels. How much has your approach to writing changed since the beginning of your career?

I plan the plots more now, but otherwise, not that much. I am a character writer, so everything stems from the characters and their challenges, histories, and hungers.

What is your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite part?
My favorite part is the beginning, when the ideas start to tickle and play, like kittens tumbling around in my head. The books all look so wonderful at that early stage--I'm always sure that THIS time, I won't ruin it the minute I start to write.

My least favorite part is recognizing around page 75 that I still don't know how to cart a perfect novel brick by brick from the other side to this one, so I will have to get it down the best I can.

The next best part is getting the first reactions from the world, realizing that even if I am not getting perfect books over here, the are pleasing people anyway.

You have wonderful titles. At one point do usually come up with them?

Ugh! This is so funny because it's an awful, awful process that only at the very last minute ends up being something decent. I have a working title for every book and I know it won't stick. Then I write the whole book, turn it in to my editor, we go through the editing process and get it into production, and then someone will say, "Okay, we need titles." So editor, agent and agency whizzes and I will go through approximately 97 million possibilities, and reluctantly settle on something we only kind of like. Then, at the last minute, I'll be working away at the next book and something pops into my head. How To Bake A Perfect Life came to me late at night in a hotel room in Tucson after three glasses of wine and a long weekend teaching. I had to get out of bed to write it down.

Barbara O’Neal fell in love with food and restaurants at the age of fifteen, when she landed a job in a Greek cafĂ© and served baklava for the first time. She sold her first novel in her twenties, and has since won a plethora of awards, including two Colorado Book Awards and six prestigous RITAs, including one for THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS in 2010. Her novels have been published widely in Europe and Australia, and she travels internationally, presenting workshops, hiking hundreds of miles, and of course, eating. She lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, and their collection of cats and dogs, in Colorado Springs. Visit her at

Happy New Year to all our Readers!

The book giveaways will continue into early January, Our usual Saturday group posts will resume on January 15.  What is your reading/writing goals this year? Please comment. Would love to hear.

A Sturdy Hand by Melissa Clark

I want to start by saying how much I'm enjoying this round of posts about your writing journeys. With a book out on submission, I am currently experiencing high anxiety and it is so comforting reading about everyone's struggles and successes and realizing this is just the way it is. 

I grew up with a writer-father so becoming a writer was less of a risk or rebellion and more of a given. I have always been surrounded by family support in my desire to do this for a living and I am eternally grateful. I know many writers who's parents or spouse or children just simply don't *get* the career choice or need. That aspect is one less emotional battle to fight, because God knows there are many others.

Writing, for me, has been a sturdy hand that has lead me to dark corners, dangerous places, unbelievable adventures and compelling people. Writing lead me to graduate school and subsequently to retreats in California, Vermont and Illinois. I've been fortunate to participate in conferences both as attendee and speaker, the highlight being the Carmel Authors and Ideas Festival where I dined with Frank McCourt and Elizabeth Edwards, among others. My writing journey has been static at times, and on a trajectory at others. I have celebrated publishing victories both large and small and have wallowed in rejection, a writer's constant companion. Most recently, my writing has lead me to explore a lifelong fear (not sure why) of kidnapping, and with this, a visit to Utah to observe the Elizabeth Smart trial, an experience I will never forget.  It has helped me answer many questions ("what if there was such a thing as lazy sperm?") and more importantly has given me the confidence to ask questions in the first place. Being a writer has also lead to being a teacher, discovering fresh and brilliant voices in students who have never expressed themselves in that way before. 

Being a writer is being on a journey that is neither kind nor gentle - it brings up issues, triggers feelings, stirs up self-doubt at an alarming rate. But despite everything I've experienced, and read about in your experiences, I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Would you?

Melissa Clark will give away one signed copy of her novel, "Swimming Upstream, Slowly" to someone who leaves a comment on this blog or follows me on my regular blog, connections clark, by midnight tonight. Oh, and happy almost new year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Don't Shoot Me - It's a Rerun!

OK, OK, I have to admit I'm resorting to that tried and true formula that all media uses this hectic time of year - the rerun.

The holidays are still swirling, my novel, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, just released in paperback, and I may have misplaced the cat in all the holiday wrapping paper.  So I'm rerunning a recent blog that aired on the Huffington Post, and if you've already read it, I apologize.  If you haven't, please enjoy.   And in the comments, tell me what books you got for Christmas, and I'll choose, at random, one poster who will receive a signed copy of the hardcover of ALICE I HAVE BEEN.  (I'll get things rolling - I received THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. Byatt, and CLEOPATRA, A LIFE by Stacy Schiff.)

And have a wonderful, book-filled New Year!


A novelist friend recently had an argument with a reader concerning a certain passage in his book.  This reader quoted actual sentences, adamant that they were on the page—to the great surprise of the author.  Who didn’t remember having written them and who, when he went back to check, discovered that he hadn’t.
But that didn’t sway the reader.  This person knew what he had read, and—all evidence to the contrary—couldn’t be convinced otherwise.

This is something to which I can relate.

In the year since ALICE I HAVE BEEN was published, I have learned many things, insightful things, about people and books and relationships and perceptions.  But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that when you write about certain subjects—such as the relationship between a man and a little girl—many people will bring their own perceptions to the subject, and see things on the page that you simply didn’t write. And you’ll never be able to convince them otherwise.

Despite what a few readers have claimed, I did not write a book about a predator and a victim.  I wrote about the complex relationship between an artist and a muse, and the mystery surrounding the end of this relationship, and its aftermath.  I wrote a tragic love story – tragic in that this relationship occurred at the wrong time in the lives of both Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, and haunted them forever after.  But there was beauty in it, too, because it gave the world Wonderland.

I did not write about any physical or sexual relationship between the two.  Not at all.  Nothing on the page reflects that.  Did I choose language, perhaps, meant to provoke discussion?  Yes.  Did I choose to write opaquely about intent, leaving the reader to imagine what was going on in the minds of all involved?  Yes.  I wanted to write a story that provoked discussion and boy, has that proven to be the case!

But I have encountered readers who insist I wrote physical details that simply are not on the page.  Who have insisted that the confused yearnings I gave Alice Liddell are inappropriate for a child of seven.  Yes, they would be—but in my novel, when she experiences them, she’s a pre-adolescent eleven-year-old, at a time when a girl could be legally wed at twelve.   

Yet people still insist otherwise.

Over time, instead of taking offense or expending energy going through the book, line-by-line, to refute those who insist, I’ve learned to let it go.  And I have a better understanding that when it comes to fiction, you can’t predict how people will react, especially to certain subjects. 

We all know that taste is subjective; intent is, as well.  And that’s the wonderful thing, really, about literature.  It’s a conversation between author and reader; a conversation during which the author can only speak through the words on the page, while the reader can parse and argue and rail, or laugh and cry and embrace.  Rarely does —or should—the author have a chance to steer that conversation directly.    

Still, it’s a conversation, it’s an engagement consisting of emotion and passion, good and bad—but really, mostly good.

This is what I’ve come to understand.  Just as they say bad publicity is better than no publicity, I’ll add that a contentious conversation is better than no conversation.  As an author, I want people to react passionately to what I’ve written, not shrug or forget about it or worse, ignore it all together.

If they react in ways I didn’t absolutely intend, or see things I didn’t absolutely write, well—in a way, that means I’ve done my job.

Once we write, once we send our words out into the world, we cannot direct their journey.  They will be embraced, loved, cared for; they will be rejected, disparaged, misunderstood.  Just like people, actually, and if we’ve done our job well, that’s what our characters become.  Living, breathing people whose actions, whose behaviors are complex, confusing, and not easily categorized.

Words on the page are given life not only by those who write them, but by those who read them.  As authors, we need to understand that—and embrace it.  The conversation between us and our readers cannot—should not—be one-sided. 

So even though I still sometimes sigh when a reader insists I’ve written something that I know, in my heart, I absolutely did not, I don’t argue.  Instead, I remind myself how very, very lucky I am that people are reading my book and talking about it.

For, to quote Lewis Carroll himself, “ ‘What is the point of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’ ”

Melanie Benjamin is the author of ALICE I HAVE BEEN, the story of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.  It's now available in paperback.   Her second historical novel, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, will be published by Random House in July 2011.  Melanie also blogs at the Huffington Post; you can visit her at her website at    

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A New Year, a New Release and a Contest

First off, I wish you all a very Happy New Year. May all your resolutions be kept and good luck head your way. I hope everyone had a lovely holiday and that the weather didn't strand anyone someplace they didn't want to be.

This January 4th, the third book in my paranormal romance series goes on sale. To celebrate, I will send one commenter the first two books. If you win and you already have these two books, I'd be happy to substitute two of my historicals. I will post the winner on or about January 5th, 2011. If you don't leave me a way to contact you, you'll need to check the blog to see if you won.

Contest Legal Stuff
No purchase is necessary. Void where prohibited. Winner chosen at random (via from among eligible commenters to this post. You must comment by midnight Pacific, January 4th, 2011. Your comment should answer one of the  questions at the end of this post. Open to international entries, unless there's a law against it in your country or mine.

My Immortal Assassin, by Yours Truly, Carolyn Jewel

Revenge. It's all Grayson Spencer wants. Christophe dit Menart, a human with dark magical powers, destroyed the life she loved. She wants the pleasure of killing him, no matter the cost to her. If not for Durian, a dangerously sexy demon fiend charged with keeping Christophe alive, she would have succeeded, too. Now, she's certain all hope is gone. But he has a plan and an offer she can't resist...
Durian has spent his life as a trained and sanctioned assassin. His duty: to enforce the laws against demons harming humans. He's always prided himself on staying out of the fray, carrying out his orders and honoring his fealty to his warlord, but never getting attached. Never until Grayson, a spunky and determined woman clearly gifted with magic herself. He convinces her to swear fealty to him so he can protect her and teach her to use her magic to taste the revenge she so desperately wants.

They're soon bound together in a forbidden desire--a dangerous passion that calls into question Durian's oath of loyalty to his warlord. When he refuses to return her to Christophe, his disobedience threatens to inflame the tumultuous war between demons and the magekind. Can they--and their love--survive?

Why You Should Rush out and Buy This Book Immediately!

Forever, Grand Central Publishing, January 2011
ISBN: 978-0446563864
Romantic Times 4 1/2 stars
The lines in the war between Magekind and Fiends continue to blur in the next installment of Jewel's exhilarating My Immortal series. The protagonists in this drama have both suffered terribly, giving them a common ground and enemy. Jewel provides her fans with a terrific tale that has action aplenty and drama to spare. Great stuff!
Jill M. Smith Read full review
Alternative Worlds
Fast-paced from the moment Gray and Durian meet on the streets of San Francisco. Read Full Review

Publisher's Weekly
Jewel's third paranormal (after 2009's My Forbidden Desire) is an exciting return to a world of demons and mages.
BookPage - Romance of the Month - Top Pick!
Dark, edgy and laced with thrilling desire, My Immortal Assassin will set readers' hearts racing.
Christie Ridgway
Read Full Review

Read Chapter 1 of My Immortal Assassin

Order the book

Books in the Series

Book 1: My Wicked Enemy
Book 2: My Forbidden Desire
Book 3: My Immortal Assassin
Book 4: My Dangerous Pleasure - June 2011

Interview With The Author

Q: So, Carolyn, tell us about yourself.

A: I write romance novels, bake so I have an excuse to airquotesTaste Testairquotes cakes, cookies and pies. Also, I have a day job with computers and servers.

Q: What's your favorite animated cartoon?

A: Sponge Bob

Q: Favorite TV Show?

A: I only watch one, and that's True Blood. We cancel HBO when the series is over for the year. However, I am sorely tempted by the HBO series for George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice because oh my gosh! Also, Sean Bean is in it.

Q: Favorite color?

A: It's really strange that you ask me that, because I was just talking about that the other day---

Q: I know.

A: Gray. But I like it better when it's spelled grey. I mean, what other color has two accepted spellings? I do think it's strange that I like gray. It's not the flashiest color around. I can't explain why I like it, and actually, maybe I shouldn't even try.

Q: Finish this sentence:  If I had a bazillion dollars I would . . . .

A: Not have to answer your silly questions? What would you do if you had a bazillion dollars?


Q: Most hated vegetable?

A: There are three vegetables of doom:
  1. Cooked carrots
  2. Cooked peas
  3. Brussels sprouts
At Christmas, my youngest brother, who worked as a chef for a while and now caters on the side, cooked our holiday meal. One of the dishes was brussels sprouts. I gamely agreed to try them on the theory that an actual chef might render this vegetable of doom palatable.

Q: And?

A: No.

Contest Question

Answer at least one of these questions. Feel free to lie, fudge the details, tell the truth or otherwise go off topic, as long as I know which question you're answering.
  1. If you were walking in the woods and you saw a wolf would you a) grab your camera and start taking pictures b) Make sure you have your wolfsbane handy because you know for a fact that's no ordinary wolf  c) Call Grandma and warn her 4) Feed it Brussels sprouts, wait for it to be violently ill, then walk away feeling safe but also kind of sorry for the wolf.
  2. Would you rather have the power to heal all wounds, know how to fix your computer or turn Brussels sprouts into chocolate?
  3. Look to your left. What's the first thing you see? (If it's Brussels sprouts, there's just no hope for you.)
I will post the winner on or about January 5th, 2011. If you don't leave me a way to contact you, you'll need to check the blog to see if you won.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Post-Christmas Troll Report

by Malena Lott

I have a word for the week between Christmas and New Year's: VACATION! And not just any vacation, but the kind where you get to pick up used wrapping paper and colorful boxes while visions of a landfill dance in your head. The kind where the kids fight over whose turn it is to use the iPad and beg Mama Bear for permission to download the .99 Fat Booth app, then use your own money against you by taking your photo and showing you what you'll look like as a blimp if you keep eating the chocolates Santa left in your kids' stocking. Yeah, *that* kind of vacation.

 Since I work from home, a stay-at-home vacation doesn't feel much different than a regular work week, other than I'm not making (not kidding) 44 trips to the school this week for drop-off, pick-up, basketball, dance, etcetera. Instead I'm using those precious moments to ready FIXER UPPER for her launch into the ebook world where I hope my book will pop many Kindle cherries. I'm thrilled so many folks got ereaders for Christmas. Let's just hope they *all* don't want to read Dickens' since that baby is free.

Coming soon to the Amazon.
It's not snowing in Oklahoma, either and since I've discovered zumba on YouTube I don't have to drive myself anywhere this week to exercise something other than my fingers on the keyboard and my mouth chewing odd-named food like "summer sausage" in the middle of the day. My husband is a film critic so I don't even have to leave the house to watch the movies in theaters - which we fondly refer to as Awards Screeners in my household.  I even got my young adult manuscript, series' synopses and marketing plan to my agent on Winter Solstice so I really am the sluggiest of slugs this week. I am getting out to visit girlfriends over high-priced coffee and a girls night out for our NBA game in the suite, but I'm more excited about dinner and drinks and girl talk than I am the game itself. (GO THUNDER!)

What about you, friends? I'd love to hear your favorite Christmas gift, awkwardest Christmas moment or special (or not-so-special) New Year's Eve plans. Shocker: I'll probably end the year catching up on films and more tongue exercising (did you know it's the strongest muscle in the body?) with popcorn & M&Ms and making out with my husband. 

xoxo, Malena
P.S. I'm not a film critic, but I did love the following: BLACK SWAN, WINTER'S BONE, TRUE GRIT, THE SOCIAL NETWORK and 127 HOURS. Also, I adored IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY.

P.P.S. Seeing what you look like in the Aging Booth app will not make you feel great about aging gracefully.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Never Ending Story

It's not just a movie...

Becoming a writer, for me, wasn't really a decision as much as a vocation. I've written stories with fictional characters since I was eight years old. I started my first novel first at 10 and then 12 and finally 14. But writing, as far as my parents were concerned, wasn't much of a career plan. My family didn't know any writers. I didn't even consider writing as a possibility. So I did what a lot of people with a proclivity for words do: I went to law school.

After law school I first represented abused and neglected children for the County of Cook (Chicago) and then worked as a prosecutor in domestic violence in Denver. It wasn't until I'd been working in Denver for a while that I rekindled the idea of writing a book.

I joined a critique group. I finaled in a contest. I moved to Los Angeles.

In LA I promptly started at the bottom of the heap in the mail room of ICM where I eventually became a motion picture literary agent and it was there that I finally wrote a book and then another. The joke in my family is that I had to become an agent to get an agent.

Hollywood Girls Club, my first book club came out to great fanfare. PW review. Kirkus review. Book launch party. Radio interview tour. A few television interviews. I was excited, thrilled, knowing that I was destined for the best sellers list.

And then the numbers started coming in and they were good, for a first book, but the sales numbers didn't reflect the hype and my publisher quickly moved on to the next 'big book'. A year later the second book came out, Secrets of The Hollywood Girls Club. The sequel was under contract but there was no push by my publisher.

Along the way I wrote a couple scripts and some tv pilots. The Apology Expert is currently under option and the tv pilots have gotten me a slew of meetings. But the next book....

The market turned. The next book per my agent wouldn't even get to make the rounds. Too dark. Too dismal. Too bad. If our writing reflects our mental state then that one certainly reflected mine. The next book, was better. But it didn't sell. My confidence drained away.

Did I want to write? Did I have what it took? Was this complete insanity? I could agent. I could practice law. I could do a slew of other things...

But I continued to write. I now have another completed manuscript. One of my Beta readers has just returned the manuscript to me and once the holidays are finished I will slog through the notes making changes. Because after the first of the year, my hope is, that this manuscript will sell. That I will be back in the book game.
Because writing...well it is my never-ending story.

Merry Christmas! Let me know about your never-ending story. I will send a signed copy of Hollywood Girls Club to one of the commenters selected at the end of the day.

Maggie Marr is an attorney and former agent. She is the author of Hollywood Girls Club and Secrets of The Hollywood Girls Club. Her script The Apology Expert is currently under option. She also wrote; Sexology, Hart & Stone and The Invincible Maggie Malone. You can follow her career at

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Arnold Schwarzenegger is My Role Model

By Karen Neches

Whenever I get discouraged as a writer, I think of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yup. That’s right. The “Govenator,” or “Ah-nold”, the no-neck Austrian whose most famous turn-of-phrase is “I’ll be back.”

A hulking, Republican governor probably seems like a strange role model for a diminutive, liberal novelist. I’ve never seen Terminator or any of Arnold’s other action movies, but I did see him featured on E! True Hollywood Story, and suddenly he became my real-life hero.

As I watched his life story unfold, it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to this man than a series of bulging muscles. He came from a little town in Austria and made himself into the world’s greatest body builder. When he’d gone as far as he could as a weightlifter, he decided to conquer Hollywood. When he got too old to wield an Uzi on the screen, he took on politics, and became governor of California.

All of this from a weird-looking guy with a heavy accent and a nerdy name. I mean, when’s the last time you read a romance novel with a love interest named Arnold?

I followed his triumphs and came to the conclusion that as a writer I could learn a lot from Arnold. He’s got several qualities that separate him from the ordinary guy on the street.

1. An ability to ignore the nay-sayers. No matter what stage of your career as a writer, people will try to put you in little boxes to limit you. “You’ll never get a book published” or “You’ll always be just a genre writer.” When people try to keep you in your place, remember Arnold, and how he’s constantly redefined himself. What an amazing stretch to go from Conan the Barbarian to Governor Schwarzenegger. Imagine all the nay-sayers Arnold “terminated” along the way.

2. A tendency to be think big. Whether it comes to the state he governs or his biceps, Arnold thinks big. Take a page from his book. Don’t settle for Rhode Island-sized dreams if you have your eye on California. Yes, it’s scary to state your dreams when they’re big. People might laugh. You might laugh. But go ahead and declare your intentions. “I want to sign a contract with a big publisher!” “I want to be a best-selling author.” As Arnold would say, “Don’t be a ‘girlie-man’ when it comes to going after what you want!”

3. An unwavering belief in himself. Often your biggest nay-sayer will be the inner voice that says “I can’t do it.” When the voice in your head gives you a laundry list of all the reasons you can’t succeed as a writer, remember Arnold who has risen to the top of three extremely competitive professions. He didn’t listen to the voice that whispered, “Action stars can’t be governors.”

It’s time to channel your inner Arnold and enter the world where all kinds of unimaginable dreams can come true. Say hello to your future, and “Hasta La Vista, baby” to anything that’s holding you back!

Who is your role model and why?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Long and Winding Road . . . and Book Giveaway

by Judy Merrill Larsen

I received my first rejection letter circa 1971 from Tiger Beat magazine. I'd entered some contest to write "My Dream Wedding to _____" I picked Bobby Sherman. (I still know all the words to his big hit "Seattle" and will sing it if asked. Seriously. Just ask.) I don't recall being particularly upset about not winning which perhaps suggests I was just preparing for the 321 (or so. Not that I'm counting or anything.) rejection letters I would get when first querying agents. I recall being more disappointed about not winning one of his puppies in another contest they had.

But, I digress.

As I was saying, that first rejection did not deter me in any way. I filled notebooks with diary entries, wrote stories, plays, and poetry. Lots and lots and lots of poetry. Really bad teenage girl angst-filled poetry. My top topics were boys and war. And, no, you can NOT see them. Ever. I will say, though, in their defense, that very few of them rhymed. I am proud of that.

I got more serious about writing in college where I was an English major and took lots of creative writing classes along with all the lit courses. I learned how stories were told and fell in love with words.

Flash forward. I got married, had two babies, got divorced. I suddenly found myself not only surprised to be an ex-wife but needing to tuck away the writing dreams and focus on providing for my sons as a high school English teacher.

Little did I know that my education as a writer was on the right path. Long and winding, but right.

My days filled with my sons, growing up before my eyes, and the words of the masters, and exposing my students to those words. Discovering with them how stories get told, how characters get into our hearts and stay with us (Atticus Finch, anyone? Elizabeth Bennett? Tom Joad?).

And then, in the spring of 1999, a friend and I were drinking wine and talking late into the evening, and I said into the dark, warm air that someday I was going to write a novel. She looked me hard in the eyes and said, "So go do it."

I did.

I wrote the first draft that summer and began collecting rejections. Lots of rejections. (I still say I didn't know how to write a query letter.) But I truly believe that things happen when they are supposed to. And in the summer of 2004 (yes, 5 years later), an agent said yes. The right agent. The perfect agent. And then a couple months later we sold ALL THE NUMBERS to Random House.


It was released in July 2006. And since then, the road continues to twist and turn. There have been more rejections . . . and more yesses. The book has traveled the world and become a best seller in Taiwan. And even though I still get all stressed when a manuscript is on submission, and rejections still sting, I can look back at the road I've traveled and know that things happen how and when they are supposed to. And I still look forward to seeing what's around the next curve.

What do you hope is ahead for you? Leave a comment (with your contact scoop) by midnight CST on Dec. 22 and I'll randomly select one winner to receive a signed copy of my novel.

I live in St. Louis, MO with my husband, am the mom/stepmom to five kids (ages 17-25), and taught high school English for 15 years. I'm over on Facebook and Twitter .

Monday, December 20, 2010

COMFORT BOOKS by Melissa Senate

Publishers Weekly very kindly said about my new novel, THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL: “Senate handles the hefty topics of loss and remembrances with lightness and respect and in so doing, reinvents comfort food.” I could kiss this quote. If there’s anything I want a reader to take away from my novels, it’s a feeling of comfort. Of warmth. Of yes, yes, yes, that resonates.

I like comfort.

After I sold my first novel in the year 2000, I spent part of the advance money on something I still use every day and treasure the sight of: my writing desk. It’s an interesting and beautiful six-feet-tall mahogany secretary about two feet wide, and the drop-down desk is big enough only for my laptop, my ever-present mug of tea, and my vertical stack of comfort books—the ones that are always there, as comforting to look at as they are to read.

These books are the ones I read over and over—especially right before I’m about to start writing a new novel, and when I’m stuck in the middle and three-quarters of the way through. When I’ve written myself into a corner. When I’m blocked. When I’m scared and think I can’t do it. And when I just need to be reminded of what speaks to me as a writer and as a reader. I have more favorites, of course, including more recent ones that inspire me, but this beloved collection never leaves the desk, the side of the laptop, and restores me to all good things:

Then She Found Me by Elinor Lipman. LOVE this novel, starting with its great first line: My biological mother was seventeen when she had me in 1952, and even that was more than I wanted to know about her.

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. Inner lives. A celebration of the quirky. Beautifully written.

Good Grief by Lolly Winston. Never fails to help me. The perfect novel. As funny as it is touching and true.

Bitch In The House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer. I’ve read every essay at least 5 times.

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I love these inspirational mini essays, one for every day of the year. True comfort.

Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy. Pure warmth. I've read many of her novels, but this was the first and the one I love most.

Range of Motion by Elizabeth Berg. I can’t always relate to Elizabeth’s Berg’s work, but when I can, I’m mesmerized. She’s elegance and earthiness at the same time.

A Little More About Me by Pam Houston. Wonderful personal essays. (In one she sums up her life by reciting Shawn Colvin: I gave nobody life, I am nobody’s wife, and I seem to be nobody’s daughter.)

Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from The New York Times. Essays on the writing life and craft from varied, interesting writers, from Richard Ford to Alice Hoffman to Barbara Kingsolver. Also a volume II. I can’t get enough of essays about the writing life.

Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood, edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses of Another brilliant collection of essays from the trenches. Have read each one zillion times.

And the winner of the never-gets-old-and-never-will: Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. Voice. Absolute honesty. And biting British humor. A gem. (And gave me the courage to write my first novel at 34 when I’d all but given up.)

For a Happy Holidays chance to win a signed copy of The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, leave a comment about what books bring you comfort. I’ll pick a random winner early Wednesday morning, so check back here!

Mini bio: Melissa Senate is the author of 10 novels, including her latest, THE LOVE GODDESS’ COOKING SCHOOL. She lives on the Maine coast with her son and lots of books. Come visit her website (click on her name above), friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Guest Author Sunday: Julie Cannon, author of I'll Be Home For Christmas

Sharing a Gift For Storytelling: One Writer's Journey 

I love telling stories. It is my gift and I give it back to this world with great pleasure.

To hear my parents tell it I emerged from the womb telling stories. “Julie was constantly making up little stories and irritating her brothers,” they’ll say, shaking their heads with indulgent smiles, and then, “When she was still little bitty she began to write her stories into books she stapled together.” I know this is true because my mother saved some of these volumes made of cardboard covered in slick yellow wrapping paper with titles like “Mrs. Duck’s Vacation” and “Roscoe Finds a Friend.”

I was a really nerdy child and writing was my way to shine. Collecting words and creating internal landscapes as vivid as the orange-plaid swivel chair where I liked to curl up and read was a process that brought joy to my soul. In fact, I still collect words. I’ve got journals full of phrases like “The back yard had turned into one giant puddle with pecan tree leaves like little rowboats docked at its banks,” and “I render the calves of my lips,” and single words such as “Habersham,” and “Slatternly,” and “Tyrant.” These may seem like odd treasures, but they are tucked around on little slips of paper everywhere in my life - in drawers, my purse, books, my desk - and they truly excite me.

The first part of my writer’s journey up till publication is recorded on my website at and it seems every time I endeavor to tell it again, it’s a bit different, so I’ll just let that one stand and move on to today, as a woman of 48 years with her fifth book just come out.

Like most writers I am an obsessive reader. All day long I dream of the books waiting for me, and when I crawl into bed each night I have a stack of books I spread out around me with a contented sigh. Lately it’s been: “The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass, and Pat Conroy’s “My Reading Life.” This last one combines all my obsessions into one volume (reading, reading about a writer, reading about the books that built that writer) and it has literally consumed me. I found out that Pat, too, collects words like treasures.

Here’s a quote from “My Reading Life” that grabbed me so hard I was compelled to copy it down on one of the billions of slips of paper that fill my world like pretty snowflakes: “A novelist must wrestle with all mysteries and strangeness of life itself, and anyone who does not wish to accept that grand, bone-chilling commission should write book reviews, editorials, or health-insurance policies instead. The idea of the novel should stir your blood, and you should rise to it like a lion lifting up at the smell of the impala. It should be instinctual, incurable, unanswerable, and a calling not a choice.”

A calling, not a choice. It sure feels that way sometimes, this obsession I have with words. It can make me mad because writing can be a very slow and unsteady road to income, and to have no choice but to do it seems grossly unfair. But then I wonder – do I honestly have to do it? Does attention follow desire? Or does desire simply follow attention? Because I know I give it my utmost attention and perhaps it is one of those self-propagating things like whirlwinds of leaves. I go round and round with this question, but still don’t have the answer. I do know that occasionally I have gone some fairly long stretches of time without writing - like when my three children were babies. I guess it was still there, lurking in the back of my mind, but I could put it off for the needy (loud) little creature in my arms.

However, if I am in the midst of a novel, if I’ve allowed myself that first chapter, the need to write is insatiable. Incurable. I wake up each day, and after coffee and some meditation time with a small book called The Upper Room, I literally pour every fiber of my being into my current story.

I woke up at 4:00 a.m. because of an email I’d received the evening before. “Dear Julie,” it began, “Hi, my name is --------- and I have read about 75% of ”I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on Kindle and am thoroughly enjoying it. I was asked to lead our meeting on December 16th and I just thought it might be nice to know what you thought, as the author, were interesting questions for such a group (the group was composed of seven female professionals at Emory University). I am writing to ask if you have a discussion/reading group guide for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Well, I did not. I had all but forgotten the plot because once I had poured myself out, heart and soul, into “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and turned it in to the publisher, I began to focus on a new novel. But I recalled these words I’d copied from a recent blog sitting on a slip of paper on my desk; Jane Friedman saying; “If people seek to experience something meaningful, personal, and authentic, then the author’s involvement can be a key factor in developing a loyal readership that helps build the all-coveted buzz.”

Well, I didn’t sign up to try to create buzz, to be a salesperson. Didn’t know till the publication of my first novel, “Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes,” that a writer had to even do that type of thing. I thought you wrote your book and sent it out there. But lo these many years later I realize you don’t just write your story and shove it out there. If writing is indeed a gift, and I believe it is, a writer has a responsibility to her readers.

As I was writing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” what began as a simple WWII love story mutated into something that would illustrate how adversities and afflictions invade everyone’s life, how they are as certain as the daylight that follows rain, but that our adversities can make us stronger, better people, if we allow it. An elderly black gentleman named Mr. Tyronious Byrd walked onto the set of my story, and he sure told me a thing or two about how he’d turned his obstacles into opportunities. It was a very eye-opening and healing thing for me to write about him and he became my favorite character. He helped me begin to tell the story of my brain injury in a new light (you can find a bit of this on my website).

Thoughtfully I sat in my chair and composed 18 of what I hope are thought-provoking questions worthy of seven Emory professionals. Some were on the subject of war, some about a goody-two-shoes character named Helen, and several on the legitimacy of being mad at God. But a good number focused on Mr. Tyronious Byrd, a groundskeeper at a Christmas tree farm in Georgia, and his so-called ‘soul travail.’

Speaking from knowledge I gained while following Mr. Tyronious Byrd along throughout his part in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” even in our times of greatest pain, we can find a healing message to give and someone who needs to hear it. I know from experience that there is enormous power in a story well told and if I can bring comfort and joy to others, it is my privilege.


P.S. Leave a comment and I’ll randomly select one person to win an autographed copy of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” (I’ll post the winner in the comment section the day after this blog is published, and I’ll ask you to email me your address so I can send you your prize.)

You can learn more about Julie and her writer’s journey at her website  or you can join her Like Page on Facebook.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Girlfriends Share Favorite Books On Writing

So many writing books; so little time. Here are the titles that helped shaped us as writers.

Leave a comment and you can have a chance to win STORY STRUCTURE ARCHITECT by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Winner announced Sunday morning before 10 a.m.

The Writing Books We Love

I'm a big fan of the Donald Maass books WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and FIRE IN FICTION. I also like John Dufresne's THE LIE THAT TELLS A TRUTH. Of course, BIRD BY BIRD is also an old standby. I keep these handy and pick them up when I'm stuck or getting ready to revise. I have flagged most of the pages, it seems.
I also rely on novels to help me understand the craft and art of telling a story. Maybe it's all my years as an English teacher, but picking up my old favorites--TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or THE THINGS THEY CARRIED or Steinbeck or Faulkner help me remember that the parts all have to add up to a bigger whole--and I want to help the reader fall in love with my characters and their story.

Judy Larson

Favorite writing/craft books:

BIRD BY BIRD - by Anne Lamott - An inspirational and funny book for writers.

HOOKED - by Les Edgerton - How to hook your readers from page one and never let them go.


THE RESILIENT WRITER: TALES OF REJECTION AND TRIUMPH FROM 23 TOP AUTHORS - by Catherine Wald - not really a craft book, but it's comforting to read these frank accounts on facing rejection.

Wendy Tokunaga

Do I have to write in paragraph form for this one, or can I just make a list? A really, really LONG list? Well, let me just say first that I LOVE writing/craft books. I collect them like some people collect coins or stamps or those clunky pewter beer steins. I love the idea that one of them might hold "the answer" to my mystifying plot problem or my character's gaping backstory... So, here's the short list, but come visit me sometime. You'll find more on my shelves: SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES (Blake Snyder), STORY (Robert McKee), ESCAPING INTO THE OPEN (Elizabeth Berg), ON WRITING (Stephen King), ON BECOMING A NOVELIST (John Gardner), BIRD BY BIRD (Anne Lamott), MAKING A LITERARY LIFE (Carolyn See), THE COURAGE TO WRITE (Ralph Keyes), TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER (Dwight Swain), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL (Donald Maass), WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS (Linda Edelstein) and -- my latest find -- 45 MASTER CHARACTERS (Victoria Lynn Schmidt).

~Marilyn Brant

I don't read that many books about the craft of writing because I'm so afraid I'll learn that I'm doing things all wrong! Okay, that and the fact that I gravitate toward fiction when I read, and I so enjoy discovering new authors and their novels. But I did buy and read Stephen King's ON WRITING, and I loved it! I think once you read that, you know there's no wrong way to do anything.

--Susan McBride

Best two writing books - BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King.

Leslie Langtry

These are my four favorites that I read over and over:





Melissa Senate

THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler is invaluable for those times when a writer is compelled to plot out a synopsis before writing the actual book. I also recommend THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING by Lajos Egri. Oh, and here's a piece of trivia: My debut novel THE THIN PINK LINE and I are mentioned in Donald Maass's WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL

Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Two favorite books: For pure craft, SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Browne and King is the best. I re-read this every year or so, just to keep on my toes. For a combination of craft and a great sense of what it is to BE a writer, BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott. Some things in her book are out of date (for example, she says that once you’re published you’re pretty much guaranteed to be published for as long as you want, and that’s simply not true these days). But mostly she gets it right, and makes you laugh and cry, both.

Melanie Benjamin

Without a doubt Stephen King's ON WRITING. LOVED it and to this day I happily avoid adjectives /adverbs at all costs ;-) hehehe

Jenny Gardiner

I have been a novelist for fifteen years and each time I get started on a new manuscript, I dig out my trusty guides and review, review, review. My list of craft books probably resembles many other authors, but with good reason. These are the ones that provide the trustiest maps: Stephen King's ON WRITING, Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD, Natalie Goldberg's WILD MIND, Jack Bickham's THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES (And how to Avoid Them), Donna Levin's GET THAT NOVEL STARTED and James N. Frey's HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL.

I don't agree with everything I read and now that I am also teaching fiction writing I've come up with own guides, but for those who need a kick start, any of one these titles will get you back on the road.

Saralee Rosenberg

I love John Truby’s THE ANATOMY OF A STORY: 22 STEPS TO BECOMING A MASTER STORYTELLER. It’s great for story structure and developing an outline. During revisions, I like to page through MANUSCIPT MAKEOVER: REVISION TECHNIQUES NO FICTION WRITER CAN AFFFORD TO IGNORE. I also love THE FOREST FOR THE TREES by Betsy Lerner. It’s written from an editor’s point of view (although Lerner is now an agent) and just gives all sorts of insights in the writers’ psyche and the publishing process. Reads like an insider type of book.

Finally, Bredna Ueland's warm-hearted classic IF YOU WANT TO WRITE: A BOOK ABOUT ART, INDEPENDENCE AND SPIRIT. It's about cultivating the right state of mind to write well.

Here's a lovely quote from the book: "The imagination needs moodling,--long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering. "

 Karin Gillespie

My first attempt at a novel proved that I was an exemplary typist and little else. POINTS OF VIEW: AN ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT STORIES was a turning point. While it sounds like pretty dry stuff, it contains some of the best “how to” examples I’ve read. As mentioned, in my opinion, Anne Lamott is the uber-resource for hands-on advice, hanging onto your sense of humor, and learning from the best.

If I’m making a favorites list, chances are BIRD BY BIRD is on it. I also must note the spellbinding and riveting CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE. Maybe that’s my newspaper background talking, but it answers many a pesky question. Books, in general, are often more tool than enjoyment; I’m always fascinated to learn how somebody else crafted their novel. There’s nothing like studying a great novelist.

Laura Spinella

Don't sneer. My favorite writing craft book is STORY by Robert McKee. Forget what you've heard about his cookie cutter approach to outlining. This book is the anatomy & physiology of story craft, a one-stop answer for everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. I outlined the major points in a notebook I keep by my desk and rereading those notes gives me an instant creative high.

Cindy Jones

My favorite books are WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass, PLOT and STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell, and ON WRITING by Stephen King. I go back to those again and again!

Sarah Pekkanen

Girlfriend News

Sarah Pekkanen’s second novel, SKIPPING A BEAT, has been chosen as a Doubleday Book Club alternate for this winter and just received a starred review from Library Journal.

Check back tomorrow for another edition of Guest Author Sunday and a chance to win a book.

Tell Me a Story, and Don't Make it a Stinking Pile

I tell my ‘writing story’ to my Dad’s freshmen classes at UW-Oshkosh every spring and fall semester. Because he is awesome, he got permission to use DRIVING SIDEWAYS as a required text in his ‘Coming of Age in America’ theme-based writing courses after the book came out. (Not to be outdone, my English teacher brother also secured similar permission with his high school honors English class.)

Ah, nepotism, you dear, sweet, old friend. Yay, nepotism!

My father asks his students to submit their questions to me in advance, because we learned the hard way that if you expect a thoughtful response from a room full of hung-over 19 year-olds when you follow your speech with “Any questions?”, you are probably high on some kind of industrial solvent.

The kids usually submit insightful and entertaining questions, and this year, I was surprised to see that many were particularly curious about how rich publishing a novel had made me.

After I finished polishing my monocle and stepped down from my diamond-crusted throne onto the back of the young man I pay $0.35 an hour to be my personal step stool, I decided to give an honest answer.

“How much did I make? Well, when you add the hours spent researching, writing, revising, editing, developing and executing my publicity plan, meeting with book clubs, mailing books and PR materials, organizing and attending events…I believe it came to negative fifteen cents an hour.”

I also enjoyed the response paper written by one of his male students, who said that reading my book made him feel “a little gay.”

But on to the writing story. It began, as these things do, when I received the lowest score in my Chem 101 class on a major exam and realized that a career in dentistry was probably not in the cards. I know! I thought, I’ll be a famous novelist!

How hard could it be?

Ten years later, after shelving my first novel (let’s call it STINKING PILE) because it garnered over 120 agent rejections, I got the idea for DRIVING SIDEWAYS. My experience with STINKING PILE taught me that plot was a very important element in a novel. As was time to research, polish, hone, revise, and edit the hell out of it. But the most important ingredient? FUN. Somewhere at the tail end of those years of practicing and being rejected and learning from STINKING PILE, I developed my own narrative voice and gave myself permission to be playful and irreverent. I stopped taking myself so damn seriously. So when I began to write DRIVING SIDEWAYS, I actually found myself having fun again.

When I had three polished chapters and a synopsis, I thought I’d test the waters and enter two writing contests: the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and the “Get your Stiletto in the Door” competition sponsored by the Chicklit Writers of the World. After a few months, I learned that I was one of 8 finalists from over 600 entrants in the James Jones Fellowship, and the only entrant in the Stiletto contest to have a request for the full manuscript from both the agent and editor judges.

Once I finished the celebratory shrieking and skipping around the kitchen, panic set in. Holy hell, I only had three chapters…now I had to write the damn book!

Which I did. I let it age, I solicited feedback from a dozen early readers, I edited, I revised, and then a year later I finally submitted a polished query package to 10 agents who had worked with the editor requesting to see my full novel. In the end, I was able to pick which agent I wanted to represent me (swoon!). Then, after an auction, I was able to pick the editor I wanted to work with (double swoon!).

It’s been a wild, amazing ride; I received some emails from readers that made me cry (in a good way), and some reviews that also made me cry (in a bad way). I still need my day job, but it provides the security (and some entertaining fodder) that supports my fiction writing habit. And despite having a somewhat successful debut, yes, there has been a STINKING PILE 2: The Stench Returns.

But, as they say, onward and upward! Forward and sideways!

I am having a lot of fun with my current project, which is a good sign. Of course there will always be parts of the process that feel like marathon-training in moon boots, because tenacity is the name of the game. But that’s a huge chunk of the appeal; because without the trials and tribulations, victory—which can be defined in many ways—wouldn’t feel nearly as sweet.

Jess is also here, when she's not obsessively catching up on Dexter.
Stalking my book at Target. God, my forehead looks huge here.