Review of First of September by Kathleen Joyce

21150214_1907201166200024_3636356680373994494_nYou know that cozy feeling of holding a warm beverage, wrapped in a blanket, and curling up with a good book by the fire?  That’s Kathleen Joyce’s cozy mystery…with a murder or two in the mix.

I admit that I haven’t read many cozy mysteries, but the appeal is inviting from page one of First of September.  The main character is a 46-year-old divorcee named Clare Harrigan, who lives in charming fictitious town Amelia Bay in the Pacific Northwest.  Clare is a potter and mother to grown children, and she has a group of the best friends a girl could ask for–the group tight since childhood.

Only one of the members of the group, Addie, turns up dead.  The police are saying it’s an accident.  Clare doesn’t think so.

She knows Addie, after all.  Just before Addie turned up dead on the beach outside her home, she seemed excited to be starting a new life.  Add to the mix that Addie hated swimming and being near water in general, so when her body turns up near water, Clare knows something isn’t right.  Amelia Bay is a small town that talks, and Addie has some secrets from her past that haven’t been forgotten by everyone in town.

The police don’t take Clare seriously at first.  But as another murder shortly follows, Clare and her friends can’t help but be involved.  The sleuthing begins as page after page Clare, Bev, Liz, and the other ladies discuss their thoughts and findings over wine, coffee, and food described with such detail that the delicious smell comes right off the page, inducing hunger in the reader.

Of course, these ladies aren’t just content to sit around and talk.  They get involved, sometimes whether they like it or not.  They question possible suspects and go looking for evidence at the crime scene and around town.

All this action is written with care and loving detail.  There are especially beautiful passages where Kathleen describes the outdoors or the interior of a home.  Being an interior decorator earlier in her life, it shows that Kathleen knows what she’s talking about.  The same is true when she writes about the process of pottery.  She writes from experience, and this is a nice touch.

When I got to the end, I was surprised who the murderer was, and it’s my bet that you won’t be able to guess whodunnit.  Kathleen’s easy flow of her prose keeps the reader guessing with every page turn.  Her characters come to life off the page.  I truly cared about them and what happened to them.  All in all, this is a well-rounded novel for this author’s debut book.

And the best part?  Clare’s story isn’t over!  First of September is just the first book in a series!

5 out of 5 stars!

Purchase First of September here.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday, including book reviews.

My new novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for only $2.99 here.

My first novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful,  is available for $3.99 here.

Saying Goodbye to Toxic Friendships

We all do it.  We eat the chocolate cake because it just tastes so damn good.

And then some of us hate ourselves in the morning for the indulgence, and we wonder why (WHY?) we ate it in the first place, knowing it’s choke full of bad stuff–fat, sugar, calories.

Like that chocolate cake, we just can’t say no to some friendships.  Yes, even the bad ones.

At least the cake doesn’t talk back to us…unless we mean by the extra cushioning around our butts telling us, “Thanks for the calories, honey!”

But I digress.  Perhaps I’m being so goofy because the subject matter of this blog is really quite serious and not an easy thing to tackle.  Okay, big girl pants are on.  Here we go.

I’ve had my share of what I call toxic friendships, from the time I was a little girl, well into my adulthood.  As a kid, it’s common for friends to make fun of each other.  The pressure to be cool–to look cool, at least–is high.  When the opportunity presented itself, I could be just as mean as some of the girls who taunted me.  

In seventh grade, I had two friends who took me shopping at the mall to basically give me a makeover because my clothes weren’t cool enough.  The funny thing is, they didn’t want to actually spend any of their hard-earned allowance money on me.  No, I was supposed to do that.  So why the guise of them taking me on a shopping spree?  I wound up buying some tacky outfit that was bright and didn’t match, which was my style back then–much to their dismay.  And these girls were my closest friends at the time.  We still hung out, but looking back, I’d say the pettiness of that day was due more to our ages than true backstabbing.

I think it’s safe to say that kids can just be plain mean, even to their friends.  But adults?

Yes.

I had this notion as a child that when I grew up, everyone would be mature enough to treat each other with respect.  While I find that most people are kind, there are those who seem generally unhappy and pour their misery onto others.  When it’s a stranger I’m dealing with who is unpleasant, it can get to me, but I know we will go our separate ways and never have to cross paths again.

But when it’s someone who I consider a friend who treats me like a rug to wipe their shoes on, especially frequently, this is a big red flag that this is not a healthy relationship.  Let me be clear that abuse is not okay in any relationship, whether it be physical, mental, emotional, or whatever.  Sadly, many people will stay in bad relationships, including friendships, out of a sense of obligation or guilt.  They feel like they owe the other person something, often because the abuser holds something over the abusee’s head.

Chances are the abuser is unhappy because they have a poor image of themselves, but this doesn’t make is all right to hurt others.  Now, we will say and do hurtful things from time to time, but if this is done frequently, if the abuser apologizes and yet still continues to exhibit the same sorts or behaviors, or the abuser makes the abusee feel like it’s their fault, this type of relationship needs to end.

I have had a few friendships over the years where the friend was someone I was very close to.  We spent a lot of time together, much of that time good and fun.  I knew these people as well as myself–at least I thought I did.  I am not going to toot my own horn, but I believe I am a good friend, at least I try to be.  I offer my support, lend a listening ear, give hugs, and have given more when I felt it was needed.  

Sadly, not everyone returns what is given.  While it is better to give than to receive, I believe that a true friendship should be equal.  If one person is doing all the giving, that is draining.  There are times when I may need my friend’s support, and if time and time again it isn’t given, something is wrong.

I had a friend in my early twenties who I hung out with three to four days a week.  I would go running to her the moment she called, sometimes to the dismay of others in my life.  We would go out to eat or go to the bookstore, always buying books.  Unfortunately, I was the one who usually had the money, so I often spent it on her as well.  She once told me I was her source of entertainment, and that hurt.  This went on for a couple of years, and while we had great talks and there were plenty of good times, I knew this friendship wasn’t healthy.  I ended it shortly after getting married.

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I had another friend who often gave me the silent treatment, leaving me to wonder what I had apparently done to upset her.  When she finally would talk to me, I was always the one to blame, and to this day, I still don’t know why she thought I was the type of person who would cause her pain, on purpose or inadvertently.  She confessed in tears once that she was unhappy because the things she wanted out of life had been denied to her, yet all her friends had them–marriage and kids.  While this was heartbreaking and understandable, her misery projected onto me and others wasn’t right or fair.  That friendship also ended.

Another friend burned me on three occasions over about a year.  Until that point, our friendship was a good one, but life circumstances had us going in two different directions.  She would post things on Facebook that were clearly aimed at me, although she didn’t mention my name.  She knew I would see those posts, however.  For some reason, she was jealous of me, I think, and instead of being happy for me, she took out her displeasure on me.  There were times when I was going through a very tough spot with my autistic son, and she knew this.  Instead of being supportive, she attacked me, saying I had a huge support system and shouldn’t have complained of feeling alone.  Raise your hand if you know how it feels to be alone, even when surrounded by people!  

The sad thing is, I forgave her twice.  We talked through things twice.  I asked her not to play games with me again, but by the third time, it was too much.  It was obvious she wasn’t going to respect me enough to talk to me face-to-face.  Friends don’t play passive-aggressive games.  They talk through things.

When I discussed these toxic friendships with my therapist recently, she said that I had to just keep those doors closed, as much as it may hurt.  I told her that it felt like someone had died when each of those friendships ended, especially the most recent one.  She said, “You’re right.  It is sad when a friendship ends on bad terms, but you have to keep moving forward.”

She is right.  See, the thing is, I forgive these people, but I cannot forget the pain they’ve caused me.  I forgive them so I can move on.  I wish them well in their lives, but I cannot be a part of their lives.  Forgiving doesn’t mean I’m saying it was okay what they did, but it’s so I can heal and realize the blessings of the good people in my life.

Toxic friendships can ruin other relationships.  You can wind up devoting too much of your time, energy, resources, money, and heart on people who will just drain you and hurt you.  This takes away from the blessing of those who treat you well, who love you, who support you.

So if you have a toxic friendship, I urge you to weigh the options.  As hard as it might be, consider shutting that door, however that needs to happen.  Other doors will open.  You will breathe fresh air.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday, including book reviews.

My new novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for only $2.99 here.

My first novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful,  is available for $3.99 here.

“As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.” -Tuesdays with Morrie

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My great aunt Alma and my grandma, Emma, circa 1931

Today, I am going to share something very special to me, something close to my heart.  Below is the true story that inspired my first novel, Hannah’s Rainbow:

When I was fifteen years old, my grandmother was terminally ill. Months earlier, she had had a sarcoma removed from her leg and had undergone radiation therapy. She was given a clean bill of health in February of that year (1995). Shortly thereafter, she went to the hospital because she had fluid in her lungs, and when they did a scan, they found a spot: the cancer had metastasized to her lungs in a matter of months. Although given two to six months to live, her time on Earth would be much shorter than that.

The day she was released from the hospital and placed under Hospice care, I wrote a letter to her, telling her all that she meant to me, how much I loved her, and how much I would miss her. I expressed my heartfelt admiration of her courage to face what lay ahead. And I asked her to send me a sign once she reached Heaven, not because I was afraid she wouldn’t go there, but because I needed the comfort.

Two weeks later, she came to our house. It was the week before Easter, and she was to spend the time with us, and her sister from California was to come in as well. On the night she arrived, she was still walking and talking. Although thin and weak, she was still herself for the most part. I remember her eating an orange in the family room as I talked to my best friend on the phone.

The next morning, she never got out of bed. The day was gloomy and overcast with thick clouds of early April showers. We thought it might just be the weather or the fact that she had been transported the night before. I overheard my dad speaking to his brother on the phone that morning, saying he didn’t think she would live more than 24 hours. In denial, I refused to believe such nonsense. All I had ever known was a life that had my grandma as part of it; to imagine otherwise was unthinkable!

The pastor from her church came that afternoon to visit, and while doing math homework in my bedroom, adjacent to the room she was in, I heard his voice through the walls, uttering the twenty-third Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff: they comfort me.”

She was asleep most of the day, and the couple of times I approached the darkened room where she lay so still on the bed, I think I was afraid. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was feeling that way, but I think now it was because I couldn’t reconcile the figure I saw in that bed with the figure I knew of her warm smile, cheery eyes, and rosy cheeks.

Some relatives came to visit in the mid-afternoon, and she seemed to brighten some, even laugh at a few jokes. My family was originally planning on attending a concert at the high school that evening, but due to my grandma’s condition, my parents remained home with her, and my brother and I attended by ourselves.

A couple of hours later when we returned home, it was dark and still raining slightly. We parked on the street because there were a couple of other cars in our driveway, and I felt my heart skip a beat as I rushed up the driveway and into the house, not wanting to believe the worst. The first sight that greeted me was my mom walking toward me, her face lined with tears, and she was shaking her head. I knew without having to ask. To this day, over 20 years later, the events of that entire day as are clear as if they happened yesterday.

Standing in the kitchen were my uncle, my dad, and the pastor. We held hands and formed a circle as the pastor said a prayer. I left the kitchen to go to the spot where Grandma had been, but she was already gone from the bed. I saw the men from the funeral home carrying her out, covered in a sheet.

She was truly gone. That night, I dreamt that my mom died, too. While my parents were away the next day taking care of everything, I was at home in the company of my best friend, and it continued to rain. I found it in me to laugh some, finding a pair of checkered pants that was so hideously out of style, but my grandma wore them, anyway. I pulled them over my own clothes and just laughed, mostly because my best friend could always make me laugh. We were visited by a cousin and her husband, who had brought over dinner, and the four of us laughed some more. There was something therapeutic in this, although it was also a brief escape from the reality of the situation.

The wake was two days later, followed the next day by the funeral. It rained in all the days between my grandma never leaving the bed and on the day of the funeral. My letter to my grandma was read at her funeral by the pastor. The Lord’s Prayer was sang by the co-pastors, a husband and wife team. My grandma’s favorite hymn, “The Lost Chord,” was played. As the family followed the casket down the aisle, I was a sobbing mess, and my brother, who was walking alongside me, put his arm around me. I remember briefly trying not to laugh, as we had this weird thing about never touching each other as teenagers, so hugs were forbidden.

Much of the graveside service was a blur, but we stood under a tent as the rain continued. A dinner was served, and then it was over. We were on our way home. That evening, the rain finally stopped. I was in my room when I heard my mom exclaim, “Cyndi, come here!”

I ran into the front window and looked outside. Stretched across the sky was a rainbow! I smiled and knew this was my grandma’s sign to me! There was no doubting that, and to explain this away as mere coincidence is an insult to her, her memory, and to our Lord of miracles. My mom and I turned away for just a moment, and when I looked back, it was gone. To catch such a brief moment in time when that rainbow appeared was not coincidence in the least. Only my mom and I saw that rainbow; it was meant for us.

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My grandparents, Howard and Emma Grundman, circa 1942

I had the idea for the story back in October 2006.  I woke in the middle of the night with the name “Hannah Rechthart” on my mind.  “Hannah” means ”favor” or “grace.”  “Rechthart” means “right heart.”  I started writing down character names and researching.  Many details from early in Hannah’s life were taken from an autobiography my grandma wrote in high school and another she and her younger sister, Ida (whom Irma is based on), wrote later in life about growing up, called “The Billhardts of Fuller Avenue.”  I also spoke extensively with my mom and had my own memories to work with for Hannah’s later years.

I composed four chapters between October 2006 and January 2009.  Then I had my first child and my second, and the story sat for years, until I started writing in earnest in March 2015.  It may have taken a decade to finally sit down and write it all out, but only by God’s grace and my grandma’s legacy was that inspiration possible.

It’s been over twenty years since my grandma passed away, but in writing this story, I hope I was able to convey with the love I’ve always had for her that she was a wonderful person.  

May you see many rainbows in your life, wherever you go.

The Letter I Wrote to Grandma:

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Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday and a book review the second Friday.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful

Why Reading Matters: From a Little Girl Who Hated Reading

The second hand seemed to take an eternity to make one lousy rotation.  Tick.  The minute hand moved the slightest fraction.  A minute is forever to a seven-year-old sitting on the living room couch next to her mother, the simple supposed easy-reader book between them.

“Go ahead.  Sound it out.”

The mom’s words could have been encouraging.  Should have been.  Maybe they had been the first, second, or even the third night of this routine, but after weeks of spending what Mom insisted was “important quality time,” the girl heard only impatience in those words.

Trips to the library to pick up books for these evening readings were boring.  The little girl only marvelled at the graffiti-riddled bathroom walls while she stood in the stalls.  Talk of renovating the library in an otherwise nice suburban city had begun.

Reading “x” number of books to get enough stars on that huge poster board chart the teacher had at the front of the classroom with every student’s name and progress on it was perhaps the only motivator.  It was a race to see who could get enough stars to earn another free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut for the Book-It program.

Mmm.  The thought of a pepperoni pizza just the right size with that melting cheese, on a rare occasion when the family actually went out for dinner…

“Cyndi, please pay attention.”

The little girl sighed.  Too many exceptions to the rules of long vowel sounds and words like “thought” and “rough” and soft and hard “c” sounds… Why did reading have to be so difficult?

So, she trudged through another ten page book with a few words on every page, perhaps taking fifteen minutes that felt like fifteen hours.  All the while, the clock…tick…an eternal minute… tick…tick…

pablo (1)At the end, the girl rather thought these reading sessions were almost as bad at the numerous times she’d fallen while learning to ride a bike without training wheels.  The neighborhood had wooden fences lining the sidewalk in every yard, and going down from the bike, hands out in defense, meant a hundred splinters in the palms…then the painful hour or two of sitting on the bathroom floor while Mom removed them with the tweezers…one by agonizing one.  Yep.  That was what reading was like for this girl.

This girl was me.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t read.  I just didn’t want to.  This general dislike of reading continued as I grew older, and although I managed to usually get a B in English, it was the subject I struggled with.  I was the kid who would rather watch the movie instead of read the book.  In fourth grade, we were assigned C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I remember trying to read, only to find myself bored after a couple of pages.  I watched an old cartoon movie version from the 70s, which lacked much of the detail of the book…which plainly showed when test time came.

Interestingly enough, when the class was assigned The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, I loved that book.  Although I’m not sure what it was about this book that captured my interest, to the point that I was reading ahead, I think it might have been the intrigue of a swan who wrote on a chalkboard he wore around his name to communicate with a little boy.  I remember very little about that book all these years later, but it was probably the first book that I enjoyed reading.

By fifth grade, I still wasn’t much into reading.  Then at the class gift exchange for Christmas, I got a Babysitters Club book (by Ann M. Martin).  I was at the age where the prospect of babysitting appealed to me, and the thought of a bunch of girls my age or a little older having a club for babysitting sounded super cool.  I could relate to the characters in the story.  Maybe that was my first indication of a love for reading: needing to find something I related to.

I read that book quicker than anything and for pleasure.  The Babysitters Club series would become my first books I actually read for pleasure.  I spent that next three or four years engrossed in them, anxiously waiting for the next book to come out.  I spent my hard-earned allowance money on them and got them out of the library.  Suddenly, library visits were exciting.  I was seeing that there was a difference between reading what I wanted and having to read for school.

Still, the reading for school didn’t sit well with me.  As I progressed through junior high and had to do summer reading, I remember groaning over it.  I had a whole summer to read a lousy book, which seemed plenty of time.  As you can well imagine, I put off most of the reading until the last minute.  Reading Jurassic Park during the same summer when the movie was out was kind of neat, however, because I felt like I was reading something current.  Perhaps part of my dislike of reading stemmed from the fact that most of the stuff we were forced to read in school was historical.  I remember how deeply it struck me when reading Jurassic Park that there was a time before humans walked the earth and there would be time after.  At 13, such a thought was beyond my world.  It got me thinking.  It was also the first time I heard about DNA.

Once I was in high school, I read the assigned books and did well in English class, although it was never my favorite subject.  I was writing poetry since I was 10 or 11 and short stories, but writing for English class was a different matter.  By this time, my homework load was so large that I really didn’t have time to read for pleasure.  I worked part time at a movie theatre, was in marching band, did Aikido, and, of course, had a full course load at school.

My tenth grade English teacher didn’t like that I thought outside of the proverbial box on the test on symbolism in The Scarlet Letter.  I barely managed to pass that test.  Looking back, being forced to conform, to read what only was assigned, to write the answers that we’d been lectured on were the “right answers”….well, I didn’t like that.  Only my eleventh grade teacher (a laid-back guy who seemed like an older hippie and more like a college prof with the messy office, beard, and just-got-outta-bed hair) seemed cool.  He was unconventional.  He told us it was okay to use “I” when writing our papers.  We read a lot of poetry and just talked about it as a class.  Our individuality was encouraged.

As strict at my twelfth grade English teacher was, she was a little spit-fire.  We studied world literature that year, and it was the first time I learned about many of those cultures.  My eyes were being opened to a world much larger than American and British lit.  It was amazing.  And she challenged us.  She was the type of teacher you loved and hated and would always remember, always appreciate, always respect.

I suppose this bigger-world picture is what first got me interested in reading nonfiction, most specifically Egyptology.  I spent the better part of my late teens and early twenties reading about ancient Egypt for fun.

Once in college, I was pleasantly surprised by English 101.  We read current stuff.  Again, much of my beef with reading in English class in high school was that everything was so old.  I didn’t relate to it.  Reading Tuesdays with Morrie, which had only been written two years earlier at the time, was a love-affair with a book for me at age nineteen.  I breezed through the pages, finishing it way before schedule.  Life and death.  Living life to the fullest.  Appreciating every moment.  That was what I took away from that gem of a book.  Current affair topics like racism and sexism and such were what we read about and discussed.  This stuff felt relevant.  It was like someone had opened the window after spending years in a stuffy room.pablo (2)

College was another time in my life where I spent much time reading textbooks, so my time to read for pleasure was limited.  I’d taken more to writing fan fiction, engrossed with meeting people online who had common interests as me.  I read a lot of fan fiction as well, so since I was reading in my favorite genres, it was the escape I needed at times.  I got that escape from writing, too.

Fast forward a few years.  I was 23 and done with college, working as a research technologist.  A good friend encouraged me to pick up the Harry Potter series, of which four books were written at that time.  I’d seen the movies and enjoyed them, so I thought, “Why not?”

I devoured those books, all four of them, in two weeks, which was record time for me.  The fifth book was scheduled to be released that summer, and I joined thousands of others in anticipation.  I.  Could.  Not.  Wait.

So began my love of reading that I never would have imagined possible when I was seven.  Even as I got older, I didn’t love reading most things.  My reading for pleasure was severely limited to fan fiction, not actual books.  But hey, it was something.

I couldn’t tell you all the books I’ve read since 2003 (when I was 23).  According to Goodreads, it’s something like 400.  Most have been fiction, but some have been nonfiction.  I spent a few years diving into the classics, like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and discovering a love for the way the authors could paint a picture with their worlds and melt or stab my heart at the same time.  I marvelled at the beautiful poetry of the prose of older books and came to appreciate them deeply, relating to the characters in a way I never imagined when I was younger.

Then I read Jane Eyre in 2006 and loved it so much, I mourned the fact that Charlotte Bronte had been dead for a hundred and fifty years.  She felt so alive through her words.  It was like her breath was on every page.  I longed to discuss her masterpiece with her, what I felt was her heart’s song.  That was the first time I’d felt that passionately about a book.  Those dead authors we’d studied in school suddenly seemed very much alive.

And so I have continued on this love affair with books.  Reading matters as deeply to me as writing now, and it’s thanks to those books I mentioned above (and some great teachers and friends who encouraged my reading) that I love to read.  I am constantly reading something, usually many books simultaneously.

Reading matters because we can lose ourselves for a few hours to another world.  We can be Frodo on a quest to destroy The Ring or Harry Potter in search of the Horcruxes.  

Reading matters because it makes me a better writer.  Even if you’re not a writer, you can appreciate the art of a well-crafted book.

Reading matters because of stories.  Story is the essence of life.  People have shared stories since language existed, long before the written word.  We want to explore the human condition in all its forms, its beautiful messiness.

And guess what?  I’ve recently reread some of the books I “had to read” in school: The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Twenty years later, my perspective is different.  I can see those characters through the lense of a mature woman instead of a child.  I also revisited Jane Eyre and felt just as much in love as the first time.  

Reading matters because those books are like old friends, always there to comfort us and bring us home.  That’s quite something coming from a little girl who hated reading

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday and a book review the second Friday.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful

The Benefits of Joining a Writers Group

There it was for probably the hundredth time on the sign outside my local library: writers group, meeting 8/18 2-4:00 PM.  Okay, maybe not the hundredth time, but how many times did I drive past the library, which is about two point five miles from my house, and see that group advertised and not do a darn thing?  The sign was one of those LED types that showed all the happenings at the library, from book discussion groups to story times for children.  And my library had a writers group.

Of course, every time I saw that sign, I wondered, What do they do at those meetings?  Do they just sit there and write?  Do writing exercises?  Or do they read each other’s work while there and comment on it?

I imagined a small group, maybe four people tops, sitting around a table with pens in hand and paper in front of them.  These folks were nameless and faceless and voiceless.  Strangers.  I couldn’t really believe that there were actually other people in my own city who were writers like me!

I’d been writing for over a year last August.  I was content with my progress at creating a finished book and self-publishing it, but I’d had to ask several friends to read it and edit for me.  Looking back, I feel like I was pulling teeth in some regards, because only about half of them got back to me, and I didn’t wish to push them into doing something they may not have wanted to do in the first place — except that they probably would have felt guilty had they said no to reading my first draft.  

While I was grateful to that group of friends, I knew that to ask my friends again for help of such a magnitude would be too much.  I was writing two more books, and let’s be honest — most people aren’t writers and editors.  

So I thought, Why not give this mysterious writers group a try?

On August 18, 2016, I approached the library with a mixed feeling of nervous energy and excitement.  Every footstep carried me closer to the light brick building I had known and visited plenty of times in the thirteen years of living here.  But this time was different.  I held tightly in my grip the first chapter of my current work in progress, thinking I needed to bring something along.

I entered the library and asked the lady behind the circulation desk where the writers group met.  She directed me to a meeting room near the back of the building, past the computers.  When I stepped into the room, at least ten people of all ages (well, thirty and up) were seated around the table and all looked at me at the same time.  The chair at the head of the long table was unoccupied, so I took a seat and offered a smile.

The woman to my left and the man to my right immediately introduced themselves to me, and a minute later, the man who ran the group (and worked at the library) told me his name (let’s call him Jack) and asked me to tell them a little about myself.  I was at ease in this group, for they were welcoming and pleasant.  And I wasn’t the only newbie that day.  Another woman (let’s call her Kate) about the same age as me (mid-thirties) was there for the first time.  Kate smiled at me across the table.  I was at home.

I sat there for the next two hours and got a handle on how the group functioned.  Everyone present had read everyone else’s work and had made comments on the content and suggestions for grammatical or punctuation changes.  As they went around the table, whoever was next in the lineup got their turn to have their work critiqued by the others.  Not everyone spoke, but most did.  I could tell most of these folks had been meeting for a while.  Their easygoing manner was inviting.  There was plenty of humor.  No one was offensive or rude.  It was like stepping into a group of good friends who were hanging out and enjoying some good food and drinks.

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At the end, Jack asked me what I thought and if I’d like to come back.  “Yes!” I said.  I gave him my email address, and he explained how the group worked: They met every two weeks.  I needed to send him up to ten pages of my stuff before the first week was up, so he could then send out everyone’s stuff about a week before the next meeting, giving us all enough time to read and comment.  

I was so enthusiastic that I sent him my chapter the very next day, even though I had a week to do so!  And so began the tradition that’s continued for almost a year.

People have come and gone from the group over the last several months, but there is a core group that keeps coming.  I have had the pleasure of reading what I consider good stories from a variety of genres from these folks: regular and cozy mysteries, romance, horror, nonfiction, short stories, sci-fi, and more.  There have been a few recent additions to the group who have become core as well, and it’s been amazing to see how the dynamic has stayed positive and inviting, with the humor never far away, since I joined.

What’s funny is that some people will shy away from joining groups like this out of fear.  If you’re a writer, maybe you just write for yourself, and that’s fine.  There are, however, many writers who want to get their stuff out there.  They write for their own pleasure and to share it with other people.  To allow fear of what others might say about your work is debilitating.  If you are serious about publishing your work, others will eventually read it…at least I would assume that’s what you want if you’re publishing it!

There have been times when what I submitted to the writers group needed some work, sometimes quite a bit of work.  I have gotten tough to swallow feedback, especially when it’s right in the moment.  Let’s face it — our writing is kind of like our baby, our kid.  We sort of fall in love with it (at least some of us do), and it’s hard to hear someone rip it apart.  Okay, that was harsh.  I have not had my stuff ripped to shreds.  No one in the group has ever discouraged me from writing or said I was wasting my time.  No one name calls or says that the work of another is only good for wiping someone’s backside.

Constructive criticism is meant to build up.  It may be tough to take, but swallow it down and let it digest a bit.  Realize that not everything you write it going to be stellar.  Some of it’s downright crap.  And that’s okay.  Because you know what?

You and I, we work at it again and again.  And come back better and stronger for it.  I am extremely and deeply grateful for my writers group.  I have told them this a few times, and I hope they believe it.

I recently finished a whole manuscript with them.  Ten months of edits on that baby have improved the story tremendously, and without this group of amazing people, I wouldn’t have been able to have the finished product I do.  

If you’ve been looking for a writers group, check out your local library.  If your library doesn’t have one, maybe there’s one in the next city over or in the county.  In this digital age, there’s no excuse not to pop online and do a search.  If you’re still out of luck, perhaps suggest to someone at the library that they start a group…or even offer to run it if they don’t have someone for the job.  If you know at least a couple of other writers who are looking for a group like this and they’re local, start a group that meets in your homes, a coffee shops, or wherever works for you.  But make the commitment to meet regularly.  Have a routine, a schedule.  Hold each other accountable to it.

If none of that works, there are plenty of groups online.  It’s not as great as face-to-face contact, but it’s better than nothing.  Facebook has loads of groups for writers, but I recommend 10 Minute Novelists.  This isn’t a group to share your story directly, but every Tuesday is Buddy Day, and you can ask for someone to read your story and edit, often in exchange for doing the same for them.  Don’t expect people to line up to read your stuff if you aren’t willing to give back.

Besides the invaluable feedback on my stories I’ve gotten from my writers group, I have made friends with them.  There have been times when the subject matter of a story has triggered something for someone in the group, and real life stories have been shared in that meeting room.  Stories of loss and heartache.  Tears have been shed.  Hugs given.  Our hearts bared.

We’re writers.  We write about our deepest fears, desires, and our heart’s song, so why wouldn’t we also express those thoughts face-to-face?  That sort of genuine interaction isn’t easily come by.

Friendship.  Constructive criticism.  People reading your story.  Improving your writing.

What’s not to love?  I’d say it’s a no-brainer.  Go join a writers group!

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog at the end of every week and a book review blog the 15th of every month.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful

 

Where Do I Get My Writing Ideas From?

This is one of the questions writers often get asked.  For some writers, they have a dream that inspires a novel.  For others, it’s music.  They hear a song that gets their mind churning, and bam, a story evolves.  Yet for others still, the book comes from personal experience, from real life events that are fictionalized.  There’s really no limit to where a writer gets their material from.

For me, my first bouts of inspiration came from other people’s stories.  I was a writer of fan fiction for many years before writing original stories, so I played with other people’s characters in their worlds, only adding my twists to things.  That was good practice, all fine and dandy for honing my writing and getting people to read my stuff, but it was never going to amount to making a living out of being an author.  No one should profit off of someone else’s creations, unless, of course, the original author gives permission or the stuff is public domain.

But let me get to the point of where I get my ideas from when it comes to writing my original stories.  My first original story, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is based off of my late grandma’s life, so that answers that question easily.  I will go into more detail regarding the creation of my first novel in July’s blog post, since I feel this story deserves its own telling.

When I was writing Hannah’s Rainbow, I honestly didn’t know if I’d write more books.  Of course, I wanted to do so, but I didn’t know if I actually had any more stories in me to tell.  Shortly after finishing Hannah’s Rainbow, while my beta-readers were going through it, the comments from one of the women in particular struck me.  She really liked Harry, who is Hannah’s brother.  In the book, Harry and Hannah develop a close friendship once they reach young adulthood, despite not being on good terms when they were children.  They share an understanding of each being in the shadow of an older sibling of the same sex as them, and Harry and Hannah are only two years apart.  Harry’s character has an important role in part of Hannah’s story, but since it is Hannah’s story, as Hannah gets older, Harry is cast to the sidelines.  Although he makes a few appearances later in the book, Hannah now has her own family: a husband and kids, and eventually grandchildren.

pablo (1)But Harry…what was his story?  One of my readers wanted to know more.  Harry is an alcoholic whose actions result in severe consequences for him because of something terrible he does at age 21.  He doesn’t see his family for years.  What happens during that time?  When he returns to his family in Hannah’s Rainbow, he tells them some of what happened, but this was an opportunity for me to really explore Harry’s story.  So a spin-off evolved.  Harry’s story is called A Laughing Matter of Pain, and not only does it explain what happens during his absence from his family, but some of his adolescence is covered, explaining how he becomes the man he is.

I began to write Harry’s story in earnest a year ago (June 2016), but would you believe that about three weeks in, another story idea struck me?  I have Hannah’s Rainbow to sort of thank for it again, but it’s more my husband whom I should thank.  There is a part in Hannah’s Rainbow where Hannah has just moved into a new house and has a young daughter, but her husband has been drafted during World War II.  That part lagged when I was writing, and when talking with my husband, he suggested giving Hannah an eccentric next door neighbor.  We joked about the neighbor being obsessed with rocks and talking about them incessantly (based off someone we know in real life who does this sometimes).  I imagined a young woman moving into a house by herself and having such an odd next door neighbor, but what if, instead of him talking about rocks, his yard is covered in rocks?  Nothing living there as far as plants go.  Why is there nothing living?  He is a widower.  He seems a little crazy.  This young lady is alone.  Why?  I started fleshing out these characters and created Lorna and Tristan for my story, Lorna versus Laura.  I began writing that story in tandem with Harry’s story, and guess what?  Lorna’s story began demanding more of my attention.  Her story just flowed out of me, so Harry’s story took a backseat for a few months while I finished the first draft of Lorna’s story.pablo (3)

I have since finished both Lorna versus Laura and A Laughing Matter of Pain, but they are not yet published.  I am currently working on books four and five, Arianna and Mile Marker 139.  Both of these books were born out of conversations I had with others.  

For Arianna, a good friend and I were discussing telemarketers one day.  We wondered what the job must be like when a customer wants to talk the ear off of the agent who’s calling, or maybe the agent is used to being a type of therapist to lonely customers.  That got me to thinking about using that for a book, but as I fleshed out the story of Arianna, the book became less and less about her new job as a telemarketer and much more about her trying to reinvent herself after her parents’ deaths.  A common theme among my stories has become broken characters who are trying to rebuild their lives and those in their lives who are along for the journey.  Romance is involved, although that is not usually the primary genre of my stories.

milemarkerIn Mile Marker 139, for the title, you can probably guess that this story involves a highway.  Mile marker 139 is a real place along the Ohio Turnpike, and there is a rest area there.  My husband has a fascination with rest areas, thinking that they would be neat places to people watch, to just drive to on some lonely night, sit, and look around.  That conversation about rest areas got the gears in my head turning.  What if there is a mysterious lady who shows up at a rest area every night at the same time?  Most people don’t notice her.  They’re just passing by, but there are people who work at the rest area.  They would see her.  The story revolves around three characters, a janitor, a barista, and a trucker, and how their interactions with this strange woman echo truths in their own lives.  As the story unfolds, the truth about Shelley (the mysterious woman) comes out.

What’s in store beyond that?  Book six will be a modern-day adaptation of Jane Eyre, which is my favorite book.  Book seven will be based off of a recent dream I had about a woman in the early twentieth century who is a writer, but her passion is discouraged because of her sex and her low class association.  

As you can see, my ideas come from all over the place!  I guess I am not the most organized writer in the world, but my chaos somehow works for me.

If you’re a writer and you’re having a hard time finding inspiration, here are my suggestions:

 

  • Take a walk in the woods
  • People watch
  • Write a short story or even just a page with dialogue between two characters
  • Pretend to interview a character
  • Take an interest of yours and think about how you could make it into a story
  • If you love music, create a soundtrack for a story and go from there
  • Write a poem
  • Just journal about what’s on your mind
  • Read lots of books
  • Get a full night’s sleep and try again tomorrow
  • Invest ten minutes a day to sit down and just write

 

This list isn’t exhaustive, and I’m sure you can find other suggestions on the net.  There are people who are much more qualified than me to give suggestions on where to find ideas for writing a story, but this is just my little list.  

I’ve shared with you my crazy sources of ideas.  Maybe it helped spark something for you?  Or maybe you’re a writing fool and don’t need my help.  Whatever your situation, I wish you the best in finding inspiration, keeping it, and writing it down.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog at the end of every month and a book review blog the 15th of every month.

Please note: Since the last day of June falls on a Friday, I’m posting this in place of my usual character profile on Friday.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available FREE on July 1 & 2 or for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful

 

Keeping the Perspective

It’s hard sometimes when in the midst of a problem to see past it.  Everything looks blurry.  The road ahead is unclear.

It’s easy to let emotions take control during these trying times, and next thing you know, you’re blowing up a balloon meant for a birthday party into a hot air balloon — yes, lots of hot air and a balloon not meant for flying, so it pops.

This is when you and I need to stop.  Just stop.  Seriously.

Take a deep breath.  Several if you must.  Close your eyes.  Count to ten.  Or one hundred.  Whatever it takes to calm down.

My latest frustration — well, one of them — has been educating myself on how to market better.  I am a writer, not a marketer.  I do not have a business degree in marketing.  I am no expert.  Neither am I foolish enough to think that the stuff I write is just going to sell itself.  Something like 1000 books are published every day.  That’s 30,000 books a month!  

It doesn’t take long to get up to my eyeballs in terms like “author platform,” “branding,” and “target audience.”  Say what?

Okay, so I’m a newbie at this marketing stuff.  I don’t know heads from tails, really.  I’ve been reading daily for two meager weeks about marketing, but I am learning.  I highly recommend Rachel Thompson’s book, BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge: How to energize your book sales in a month.  It’s somewhere to start.  I’ve learned to use Twitter more.  I’m creating simple, hopefully eye-catching graphics using Pablo at Buffer.com — free and easy to use.  I’m using Buffer.com to regularly post things daily across my social media platforms.

The posting has been going for about a month, and I have to be honest — it’s not generating the “likes” I was hoping for.  Then again, what did I honestly expect?  These things don’t just happen overnight.

So, this whole marketing thing has gotten to me.  It’s easy and tempting to want to whine about it and think that I’m just being ignored.  Oh, poor me.  Pity party city.

To which the grown up side of me says, “Grow a pair, Cynthia.”  Seriously.

This is where I need to stop.  Take a deep breath.  

Let’s talk about keeping the perspective.pablo (12)

I’ve only been writing original works of fiction for a little over two years.  In the sea of authors, that’s dipping a toe in the Pacific Ocean.  I have self-published one book to little success, but I have gotten a handful of reviews.  I have gotten people outside of my circle of family and friends to read it.  That’s a start.

Three years ago: I wasn’t writing anything original.  My first book idea was stuck at four chapters I’d written more than five years earlier.

Two years ago: I was just starting out on my journey as a writer of original stories.  I had no idea if I was even going to finish my first book, but for the first time in my life, I was committed to sitting down every day and writing, even if it was only for ten minutes.

One year ago: I had finished my first draft in ten months.  It had subsequently gone through four months of edits by friends.  I was querying agents, not really having any idea what I was doing.  I had just started (and I mean just) writing my second and third stories.

Now: I have finished books two and three in their first drafts.  Book two is nearly done going through edits.  Book three is about to enter the editing phase.  I am writing books four and five.  I have ideas for six and seven.  I am blogging regularly on a site that has a domain name.  I am active on social media.  I am beginning to market.

Whoa.

And that’s not even to mention all the amazing people I’ve met along the way!  If it hadn’t been for writing, I would have never met most of my online friends years and years ago.  Long before writing original stuff, I was hanging out in the realm of fan fiction.  I made lots of good friends and have years of fond memories because of it.  I have met many of these folks in person.  I have hugged them.  We’ve laughed and cried together.

More recently, I have met and become friends with several people from a writers group that meets regularly at my local library.  We have the commonality of being writers, but when we meet, we bare our hearts and souls at times.  After all, as writers, we often pour our deepest selves into our writing.

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It’s the people who are the greatest blessing from all of this.  And I’m writing, doing what I love.  Yes, even in the midst of learning how to market.

One step at a time.  

When you’re overwhelmed by whatever problem is trying to eat you, eat it instead by remembering how far you’ve already come.  Don’t compare yourself to others.  That only brings misery.  The only person you should compare yourself to is the person you were yesterday.  

You got this.  Keep going.  It’s worth it.

Like what you’ve read?  Thanks for reading my mini-blog!  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog at the end of every month and a book review blog the 15th of every month.

Please note: I’m posting this in place of my usual character profile on Friday.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for only $2.99 on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful