Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Overnight Success

I started writing when I was in my twenties. At the time I had four young children, a full-time job at McDonald's, and about two thousand paperbacks stashed on the bookshelves that lined my front hallway. There were several wonderful second hand bookstores in Houston and I utilized them all. I was a collector.

I owned every Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, Elizabeth Lowell and Linda Howard--oh, so many others. I rarely could afford to buy a book new, but I did buy the very first Nora Roberts, a slim Silouette, in Target. I wrote to the authors I admired. Most took the time from their busy schedules to reply with handwritten letters. Imagine!

I couldn't afford the submission process back then, not the postage, nor the actual paper. Typewriter ribbons were expensive enough. I mostly wrote my stories out in longhand and when I finally had them like I wanted, then I typed them out page by page. I still have a few sheets of those early efforts. 

Then computers came along. They weren't powerful enough to have an actual hard drive capable of holding a story so everything was saved on cassettes (yep, exactly like a music cassette). And then there were the 5 1/2 inch floppy disks that were actually "floppy". 

Eventually, dot matrix printers came on the market, but the publishers still required actual typed pages for their submissions. Paper was more expensive. Postage was out of sight. And my home life changed drastically as we moved from Houston to upstate New York. 

There were no more second hand bookstores. And even if there had been, money was far too tight to afford them. I re-read the books I had, poring over the story lines, studying them as closely as though they'd been textbooks. Our Christmas money was picked from my pocket that first year so I found a job working at Waldenbooks warehouse, packing books. 

They had a wonderful program there...they allowed the employees to "borrow" any book in the place for three weeks. I was one of only two employees who took advantage of the program. But aside from that, I also saw a different side of publishing from the inside. And it wasn't all pretty.

I'll never forget the night I arrived at work and was assigned two pallets of brand new Nora Roberts books. The job? Rip off the front covers. New books. That was how returns were handled back then. I was so sick at heart.

Life moved on. The warehouse closed and operations were moved to Tennessee. Laid off, I went back to school and eventually found another job. Going to school and working full time kept me too busy to do much writing, but I did squeeze in a couple creative writing courses. Once again, the writing bug grabbed me. One of my short stories caught the attention of my professor--a hardbitten man who was impressed with nothing. He took me aside after class one evening and asked who was publishing my work. That was the first time I actually believed I had a chance.

The house hunk was transferred again so we moved from New York to Baltimore. Suddenly, I had no job, no extra family members, no obligations. My son begged me to go in my room and write. After all, it was something I'd always wanted to do. In my late fifties, retired and at loose ends, I sat down to write. 

Publishing had changed quite a bit. There were numerous e-publishers who accepted submission via e-mail. No postage or fancy paper was required. I sent off my first book--not really expecting much--and was shocked when I was offered a contract. And over the next three or four years I had moderate success.

It's highly unlikely I'll ever be a household name. Why? Because of one simple thing. Backlist. Think back to what I said at the beginning of this post. When I first read the books of Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, Elizabeth Lowell, Linda Howard, I was in my twenties. Now I'm sixty-two. 

While I was slogging through life, they were producing books. Their backlists are staggering. For every writer out there who is just beginning--that's the secret. Write. Write. Write. These ladies (and oh, so many more) weren't overnight successes. They were persistent. And they wrote. That's the secret.


Monday, April 23, 2012


One of the pitfalls of writing is the timeline. It's easy to get lost if the writer doesn't keep track of time passing. Take something simple. Soap.

On the surface, soap shouldn't be a problem. It's been around for centuries. Certainly, it was available in the 1830's.

So when I decided to have a bathing scene for my characters it should have gone quite smoothly. But wait! They're in the wilderness on a strange planet or dimension. Where would the soap come from?

Earlier in the story I established they had minimal supplies. Is soap one of the things they would have? If so, that generates new problems. My heroine was poor and deprived. It's not likely she would have commercially produced soap, although she could likely have homemade lye soap.

But since she was fleeing for her life--and tossed a few things in a basket on her way out the door--would she remember soap? Would that be something she might probably snatch up in a hurry?

And my hero...he's a Cherokee warrior. True he went back to his village for supplies but a) will he remember soap? And b) if so, would he be more likely to use something like soapwort or some other plant substitute?

I can't tell you how many "western" romances I've read where the hero/heroine used soapweed as they bathed in a river/pond/creek. I spent three hours researching only to find out you don't just dig it up and that's it. If you want suds, you clean the roots, pound/mash them, boil them for twenty minutes, and then use the cooled result to clean body, hair, or clothes. Not exactly conducive to spontaneous sexy bathing.

Back to the soap, then.

Perhaps my heroine could just make some soap. The basic requirements for soap are hardwood ashes, rainwater, and animal fat. It seems like all of that would be readily available in their situation. Oh, yeah. They also need a pot, which I thoughtfully provided earlier in the story.

I spent more hours researching the process of soapmaking. Uh-huh. Actually making it didn't seem too difficult. From beginning to end, it takes about six to eight hours. Of course, once it's "cooked" you need some molds to pour the liquid into. Hmmmm...

And then it needs a couple weeks to harden to a decent soap bar consistency.

All right, all right. One of them will just have to remember to bring along the soap!


Friday, April 20, 2012

Written in Stone

Imagine the difficulties for the first writers. What if they made a mistake? Chiseling information on stone isn't the same as scratching some symbols on paper.

I wonder...

What if the chiseler was less than meticulous? What if he/she made a mistake and just shrugged the shoulders? After all, rectifying such an error would be a huge undertaking. It's not as though he could crumple up the stone and toss it over his shoulder. What if he decided to be creative with the symbols and add little tails on the points--or little hearts above the heads?

How do we know if the stonemasons were accurate? Much is being written and discussed about the Mayans and 2012. But how do we know one of their priests didn't have a creative bent and added some extra snakes or feathers when they were chiseling out their prophecies?

I wonder how many oddly spelled names on tombstones were actually mistakes by the stonemasons. I have an ancestor with her name spelled Alys instead of Alice. What do you suppose that's all about?

It's not written in stone, we say when we want to offer the option of change or revision. So why do we resist change in our words? In our hearts, are they written in stone?


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Stone, Spear, Cauldron, Sword

In ancient times the Tuatha dé Danann invaded Ireland. Some say they appeared in the clouds above the land. Some declare they sailed in from the sea, their ships hidden in a fog bank or by smoke. And a few believe they came to Ireland in great flying ships, landing in the Iron Mountains. Whatever the truth hidden in the legends, the stories all agree on four points. When they arrived in Eire, the People of Danu carried four wondrous treasures with them—the Lia Fail (the Stone of Destiny that shouted aloud when the rightful king touched it), the Spear of Lugh (it ensured victory to the warrior who carried it), the Cauldron of Dagda (none went away from it unsatisfied or hungry), and the Sword of Nuada (none escaped the one who wielded it.) No one living today knows what happened to the four treasures, now buried or lost in the mists of time.

Or do they? One late summer day a group of hikers made a startling discovery on a stony mountainside in the Appalachian Mountains. Assigned to investigate the find, anthropologist Russet McGinnis and her partner, archeologist Maxen Pryce determine the artifact is Bronze age, possibly even Iron age European origin. Their preliminary excavations are barely begun when they are ordered to evacuate the exciting site because a dangerous early nor’easter is moving up the eastern seaboard bringing the promise of record-breaking snow and ice. Reluctantly, they pack everything at the primitive site for transport to Russet’s winter quarters, including the few artifacts they’ve found and two strange stones…

Want to know more? Just click on the book cover!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I've been actively writing for seven years. It doesn't seem like that long, but they say time does fly when you're having fun--or something like that.

When I started out, I pictured myself as a raging success. Every writer does in the beginning. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to keep on going. There are just too many roadblocks to get past.

I had moderate success--very moderate--in the beginning. And that encouraged me to plough on, wading through the mush and mud as the publishing industry went belly up.

Timing is everything. I truly believe that. If you're in the right spot at the right time...if the right person speaks up and recommends your book...if you have the right book all comes together.

And if not?

Well, then. A lot of people don't read/buy/recommend your book. That's pretty much how it works. There are no big publisher pushes in the real world for the VAST majority of writers. How many Harry Potter series out there have gone by the wayside? How many Shades of Gray have readers by-passed?

I sometimes wonder what would happen if there were fewer books available. Would they be better quality? Would they have more to offer? Would it be easier to sell a book? Probably not. At the very foundation of things, we're all sort of sheepish in nature, sticking with what we know.

That's the conclusion I've reached. Sales aren't about seeking something new. They're about buying what we know we're comfortable with. And no amount of marketing is going to change that.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Yellow Undies

Back when I was a young girl, there was a certain "standard" your mother drilled into your head. Always wear nice clean underwear when you go out...just in case you're in an accident. Uh-huh.

I had a doctor's appointment today. And I always wear a bright colored top with my jeans, just to cheer myself up. Today it was a yellow top. And just because I'm girly under my grandmotherly exterior, I also wore bright yellow granny panties and sports bra. I had a "theme" going on.

This was a quarterly check up with bloodwork so I didn't expect too much excitement. But when I mentioned a chronic backache, my doc decided she wanted an x-ray...and handed me a gown to put on. Now I'm in an aircast as some of my readers know, so she helped me get undressed.

I'm standing there in my bright yellow undies. She gave me the ol' up and down glance and said, "Nice outfit. What happened to the socks?"

Which just goes to show you, my mother knew what she was talking about.

Oh, yeah. The x-ray didn't pick up any terrible serious issues. So all's well...right?


Friday, April 13, 2012


There aren't enough parking spots close to the door...any door.

Asking someone else to bring you stuff sucks after the first half dozen times. Then you decide to do without.

Stairs are torture devices invented by sadists.

Hip-hopping is over-rated. Staying put is better.

Handicap bathrooms should be tested by handicapped folks before they're opened to real life users. 90% of all handicap bathrooms are useless. USELESS!!!

Cars, trucks, SUVs are not designed for handicapped folks. Actually, they're not designed for anyone over 120 pounds or those who are under 5'2". 

Finally...while out and about, I received absolutely fabulous service from the folks at Panera's and Wal-Mart. Thank you folks for all your assistance and willingness to go out of your way to help!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Chapter One

It's not often that I chuck the entire file for a book and start over. For one thing, even when I embark on deep revisions, I can usually use some part of what I've written. Surely, I can tuck some bit of a scene here and there.

This time...I think not.

For the last week, perhaps more, I've been on a reading jag, plowing through a series I particularly enjoy. Since I've read the books several times before, this time I spent a part of that reading experience analyzing how the author organized, plotted, wove together the stories. What words did she use? How did she reveal the characters?

I've been away from my own book long enough to look at it with more clarity. And this is what I see. I rushed through the first chapter in my haste to get to get to the beginning.

So...if this isn't the beginning of the story, why is it the first chapter? Why isn't it the beginning?

Here's what I've concluded. The first chapter--at least the first several pages--was information I, as the author, needed to know. It's background, unnecessary to the story. And in fact, drags the story to a grinding halt.

So where does the story begin? I'm not sure.

Now it's time for me to look at my own work with the same critical eye I used on the books I've been reading. Now it's time to analyze where I went wrong.

Back to the drawing board. Chapter One.


Monday, April 2, 2012


Cancer. There are few words that have the bowel-loosening power to terrorize contained in those six letters. Everyone I know has been touched by the foul stench of cancer. The hunk had a recent bout with bladder cancer--fortunately caught in the very beginning stages. Other family members have wrestled with--and in some cases lost--the battle with cancer.

From the moment we are born, we start on our journey to death. None of us escape it. Some meet it with the flash of a bomb or the unexpected crash of a vehicle. Others embrace it after a long life filled with promise and love. And many have lives cut short by the hideous monster we call cancer. No one should die that way.

Recently, my daughter posted on Facebook about how she'd signed up to take part in a cycle-a-thon to raise funds to fight cancer. The response was...apathetic. As she pointed out in another post, a single picture of a bald child suffering from cancer had thousands of shares.

Perhaps that's all we're up for. People are broke. People are just too tired to care. Or they're just too involved with Dancing with the Stars and True Blood.

But if you still have a little compassion left, a little bit of love for your fellow man, then I ask you to read her post. Read it and send along five bucks (or more!) to support her efforts. Me--I can't walk around the block without huffing and puffing. So I'm really proud she's doing this for her dad and all the others around us who are fighting cancer day in and day out. We all do what we can. I can throw money in the pot. How about you?

Jennifer Stella Checks only, please, payable to the American Cancer Society Please mail to Jenny Stella, PO Box 28 Pleasant Valley, NY 12569 - you will receive a notification directly from the American Cancer Society for your tax records. With the checks payable to ACS only there is no hassle with cash as they are the only ones that can cash the checks. Event held by All Sport Health & Fitness in Fishkill, NY.