Books by Melissa Bowersock

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Power of Words

Over the past week, I have been struck by the battle of words that has raged across the media, both social and mainstream. It has been very similar in tone to the back-and-forth before the election, although it seems that recent events have touched people in far more emotional and core ways than that. That’s the good news; things of this nature should touch us at a very deep level. The bad news is that the activation of this core level has led to a deep divide in rationalizations, justifications and the search for solutions.

This blog is neither the time nor place to discuss violence in our country nor the cure for it.

But what I have been acutely aware of during the discussion is the use of words.

Language is a universally human trait. Yes, I know, animals have language, too, but since I don’t speak dolphin or chimpanzee, I can’t attest to the qualities of their languages. Our language, however, is an intriguing mix of describing facts and layering in emotion. It’s easy to imagine a man in the Stone Age saying (grunting?) to a friend, “Mammoth coming.” This simple observation of a fact is devoid of emotion, but when the man adds, “Run!” suddenly it’s a different story. And if he happens to add, “Run fast!” then the heightened emotion kicks the whole drama up several notches.

This very simple language of spare words has, over the millennia, evolved into a highly nuanced vehicle for conveying ideas. We no longer have to rely on simple adverbs (“Run fast!”) or adjectives (“Big Mammoth!”). We have now at our disposal an abundance of words that can denote any degree along a scale of emotion from mild to mixed to manic. It’s one of the most phenomenal qualities of words that they can convey passion, panic, longing, hatred, fear. It is exactly these qualities that make writing so powerful, both in the realm of story-telling and in journalism, for as words convey emotion, they can also promote it. Who can deny the rose-colored contentment felt after finishing a romance novel? Or the arousal induced by “adult” fiction? Inciting emotions is what pulls us into a story, what makes it relevant to us and what makes us care about the outcome. Words compel us to cheer Rhett Butler as he strides away from Scarlet; they instill in us to a righteous hope when Tom Joad says, “I’ll be there.”

Journalism, however, is not (most of the time) story-telling.

Journalism is supposed to be predicated on the truth. Journalism is supposed to be about gathering and presenting the facts of an issue. But words, those simple building blocks of communication, can like any tool be used for good or ill depending on the writer’s intent. They can be used to convey a message or incite emotion.

As an example, read the two sentences below.

He shot 20 children.
He massacred 20 innocent children.

You may agree that one or both of those statements are factually correct, yet notice the difference in the emotional content. The emotionally loaded words take the simple statement to a new level. I am not making a judgment about either statement, or about the things that are currently being said and written, but I am, during this time of high emotion and fear, paying particular attention to the words that are being used.

Because words are powerful.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lessons Learned in 2012

The end of the year is always a good time to look back, take stock, figure out what we’ve learned (or not) during the course of the year. It’s one way to gauge how far we’ve come in the last 12 months. Some of the things I learned this year are:

How to sell without selling. Back in March after the Tucson Festival of Books, I wrote about the process that moved me from being an isolated (and insulated) book writer/seller to being a connected part of the human race and forging links with readers. It’s amazing how much difference a change in perspective can make. Now I get to listen to other people’s stories. I get to hear about what’s important to them, what they remember, how they learn. It’s much more enjoyable to meet people person-to-person, reader-to-reader, rather than book writer/seller-to-customer.

Reviews/Awards/Criticisms. Back in August, I talked about reviews and how they can be ecstasy or agony for a writer. Any given book can elicit every reaction from a one-star “horrible” to a 5-star “perfect!” depending on the reader. Does that mean the book is horrible? No. That means, to that person, on that day and at that time, the book did not meet their needs, their expectations, their hopes and dreams. Does it mean the book is perfect? No. It means, to that person, on that day and at that time, the book did meet their expectations or even exceeded them. The book didn’t change; what changed were the readers. The experiences that shaped them and the filters through which they view the world are very different and something over which the writer has no control. What’s a writer to do? Write the very best book they can. Period. Adapting the “Think Globally, Act Locally” mantra, think Amazon #1, think NYT Best Seller list, think Oprah’s Book Club and the Today Show, but just write the best book you can. Don’t write what you think people want to read; don’t write for the market; write the story that wants to be told. Write the book you want to read. It won’t speak to everyone but it will speak to some. Give it the truest voice you can.

AFGEs. Life is a classroom. If we really think about it, we learn something new every day. It may be something as small as learning not to take a deep breath while eating a powdered doughnut, or as big as learning that cancer doesn’t care who you are or what you still want to do with your life when it points its boney finger at you. The fact is that we never reach the head of the class. We always have more to learn. And learning makes us a better person that we were five minutes ago. Unfortunately, we may not always like the lesson that’s being served. In AA they have an acronym for that: AFGEs. An AFGE is Another F***ing Growth Experience. AFGEs may not be the things we want to learn, but for one reason or another, they seem to be the things we need to learn. Whenever we are served up an AFGE, it may be a hard pill to swallow, but the quicker we swallow it, the quicker we will assimilate the lesson and move on to the next thing, a better person.

We’re all in this together. I’m an introvert; I think most writers are. For many years, I toughed out all the ups and downs of being a writer by myself. I went through the anxiety of submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers; I withstood the rejection letters and rejoiced in the acceptance letters.  I fumbled and fell into the pit of a vanity press. I discovered pay-to-publish and then, finally, self-publishing. I taught myself the process of formatting a book for publishing, designing the cover, writing the blurbs. I worked out how to format a story for e-books. Then, everything changed. I discovered writers’ forums online. I jumped into Goodreads and LinkedIn with the joy of an ugly duckling who finally finds where the swans hang out. I made fan Facebook pages for all my books and began to discover all the other writers and writers’ groups there. The culmination (so far) has been WANA, the We Are Not Alone forum created by Kristen Lamb. Finding community like this has been a game-changer. I am not alone. I am but one of many, many writers who toil and pour their hearts out and hope for a kind word for their children stories. It’s a new experience, but we’re all learning that cooperation works better than competition. Supporting each other works better than suppressing each other. Together we can bring our stories to light. Together we can raise them up and deliver them to the world. Together we can ensure that the stories that need to be told are being told.

It’s a great feeling.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Please, Please -- Write it Down!

I love genealogy. I thought the aptly-named “Who do you think you are?” was the best show ever on television. Watching celebrities that I liked and with whom I felt some connection struggle with their own searches, digging ever deeper into family secrets, family questions and mysteries, was something that I looked forward to all week long. Seeing the awe on Mathew Broderick’s face when he stood on the Civil War battlefield where his great-great grandfather fought; watching Sarah Jessica Parker’s flood of relief when she found out her great-great-grandmother (arrested for witchcraft in Salem) was never brought to trial since the witch trials were shut down as she awaited her turn; seeing the joy on Emmet Smith’s face when  he visited the village in Africa where his forebears lived before being taken as slaves to America—it all serves to keep the history alive. No longer dry facts in dusty books, the history becomes real stories of real people who loved and cried and fought to determine their own destiny. 

I didn’t always love genealogy. As has probably happened to a great many people before me, I was plunged into it rather suddenly when both my parents died. Suddenly I was poring through papers and seeing photographs that I had never seen before, wondering who these people were and how they were connected to me. It was immediately overwhelming, inspiring and fascinating.

Luckily for me, I still had an aunt who could help me put some of the pieces together. She could put names to the photos that were blank on the back, and she was able to tell me that my great-grandmother’s maiden name, Keyes, was not pronounced "Keys," but “Kize,” as in “eyes” with a K in front of it. I was lucky to have her for a brief 7 months longer, as she was the last of her generation. Now there is no one left to ask.

Doing my own research from there, I discovered several online sites where people can search for data and assemble family trees. The great thing is that people can share trees, sharing pictures, stories, data and connections back and forth, ensuring that late-comers don’t have to re-invent the wheel as they start their own family investigations. It’s a great community, helpful and supportive and similarly obsessed.

For some reason, there’s a huge sense of satisfaction in adding to the family tree, adding a name, adding the dates of birth and death. But there’s an even greater satisfaction in uncovering the stories between the dates. This is where the real gold lies. I find it fascinating to discover the people who made dangerous and sometimes desperate journeys to find a new beginning. I love reading about people who challenged the odds, who envisioned freedoms and opportunities only dreamed about, who struck out alone or with young families to find a better way. It was amazing to read about my multi-great-grandfather who had been impressed into the English Navy only to find himself at anchor on the east coast of the new America. Not allowed to go ashore, he and a handful of other men devised a plan whereby they requested to be allowed to take a small dory out for exercise. For three days they did this, coming back to the ship each evening until finally, on the fourth day, they rowed directly for the new land and disappeared within it. Changing his name to avoid capture, my forefather plunged deep into the wilds of the new land and built a new life with nothing but his own dogged determination.

The point I want to make is how valuable these stories are. And I don’t just mean the ones from centuries ago. I mean the stories we hear now from fathers, mothers, aunts, grandparents. Every family has them, but they seldom get written down. That’s the tragedy. When the main storyteller passes on, those stories often pass with them. Oh, they’ll be remembered for a few years, maybe retold a few times by the ones who heard them originally, but then they’ll be lost. And that’s a loss not only for the family but for humankind.

Luckily, in this day and age, it doesn’t have to be that way. With computers, it’s easy to write things down, print copies for family, even e-mail them to distant cousins. The stories don’t have to be in any particular format, they don’t have to be in a formal style. Just get the main characters down, the main activity, the places and dates. I know most people find writing difficult, but just jotting down notes is enough, at least for a start. And it could lead to a whole lot more.

The good news is that, with self-publishing options today, family stories can be published as real books for very little money and a little bit of effort. If you’re read my other blogs, you know that you can publish a quality book for just about $10. Yes, $10; I know because I’ve done it.

So this Thanksgiving, when you’re all sitting around the living room enjoying a piece of pumpkin pie and hearing the old family stories, do us all a favor and write them down. Make it a family project and ask everyone to write one story they enjoy. Collect photos to enhance the stories, maybe add newspaper clippings if any exist. You might be pleasantly surprised by the gems you uncover.

And if you’re really inspired, you might end up producing a book that could live on well past the storytellers. You just might find yourself adding to the infinite history of the human race.

How cool is that?

Friday, November 16, 2012


The true story behind my award-winning biography Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan is being highlighted in a documentary called "Our Wisconsin: A Military History of America's Dairyland." It airs Friday, Nov. 23 from 7-8 p.m. on WKOW-TV in Wisconsin. If you're in the broadcast area, please tune in. 

In honor of this recognition, I have posted a giveaway on; please enter if you would like a free copy of the book. 

The book was recently awarded an Honorable Mention by the Military Writers Society of America and continues to touch people with its true story of courage and dedication

Watch the book trailer below or go here

And good luck!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Life Gets In The Way

Like most of us, I have lots and lots of good intentions. I’ve gotten so many thanks and nice comments from other writers about my self-publishing experiences and I strive to keep adding to it but, sometimes, life just gets in the way.

First off, I am planning to retire. Not from writing; just from my day job. It’s still months away, but I have about a zillion ducks to get in a row, so I’ve been chipping away at it. I need to get with the Social Security office and find out what I need to do and exactly when I might expect my first check. I need to investigate alternate health insurance and get that set up. I need to get with my HR department to find out what I need to do there. My boss already knows my plans and at some point we’ll have to advertise my job and arrange time for me to train my replacement. And to make matters really interesting (read: chaotic), my husband and I are planning to move three hours north to a smaller town just as soon as humanly possible.

The good news is that this is all months away, so I’ve got plenty of time and am not frantic—yet. The bad news is that this is all months away and I want it now! Talk about a serious short-timer attitude …

Amid all this, I am still thinking about my latest WIP, and I occasionally bug out a knotty twist of plot or refine a transition. Sitting down to actually write just seems harder. I guess my brain is just not quiet enough to concentrate on one thing only right now. It’s too used to going in 27 different directions.

Then there’s the election. I don’t normally get too psyched up about elections, but this one seems particularly important. Maybe it’s the polarization of our country over the last 10 years, but it seems that the choices are so diametrically opposed and that the downsides are so potentially worrisome. My father used to say that he really didn’t think it mattered too much who was in the White House; life just seemed to continue on in its own rambling fashion. And I used to think he was probably right, but not since the financial meltdown of the mid-2000’s. Now it seems like it matters desperately who’s in the White House. There’s a part of me that thinks the outcome of this election is a given (with my candidate winning), but there’s also a part of me that is terrified that the other guys might actually steal the election. I try to remain calm but at times the anxiety seems to spike and I’m completely worthless at writing. At those times, the only places that benefit from my talent are Facebook and Twitter. Not exactly the full-length novel I’d prefer.

However, over the decades that I’ve been writing, I have realized that I am a decidedly undisciplined writer, and I’m okay with that. I do not sit down and write at the same time every day. I do not even sit down and write every day. I write when the spirit moves me. I’ve learned that writing at any other time is simply a waste of time, as whatever I end up with is flat and dead and useless to me. So in that respect, I am very disciplined at being undisciplined. I don’t expect to write every day. I don’t even expect to write every week. I know things will calm down, things will simplify, life will get less hectic—and I will write again.

Just not now.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tying Up Loose Ends

Life is messy. Much as most of us like symmetry, life tends more toward the chaotic, the unresolved, the disproportionate—messy. Have you ever have been tail-gated by a jerk that seems intent on ramming your rear bumper one minute, then dashes dangerously around you and speeds off in a spurt of smoke and gravel while you pray for a cop lurking up ahead who will give said jerk the instant karma that he deserves? Have you ever felt that gratifying sense of pleasure when you’ve helped someone unasked—retrieved dropped groceries for a little old lady in the parking lot, grabbed a wayward shopping cart for a frazzled mother with her arms full of cranky baby—only to get back to your own car and find someone keyed the side of it? What’s up with that?

We seem to have an innate sense of balance: good deeds deserve appreciation; bad deeds deserve punishment. Questions deserve answers; chaos requires order. We like things to have balance; we like tit for tat. We like it when loose ends are tied up in nice, neat little bundles.

Not so, life. If karma does exist (and I think it does), it seems to operate on a much larger scale than anything we can discern. More often than not, we do not see the scales dip and rise, then level off in that perfectly symmetrical way. We do not see the jerk get his comeuppance; we do not see the truly generous person rewarded for their giving nature.

So here is the writer’s dilemma: in your story, how little or how much do you tie up the loose ends?

It’s a valid question. If you opt for tying up all the strings into a nice, neat little package, most likely you have imparted a very agreeable sense of satisfaction to your reader. The caveat is that a perfectly resolved story can have an unreal fantasy feeling to it, leaning toward the Disneyesque. If, on the other hand, you opt for a true-to-life feel, you leave some things unresolved and/or dissatisfactory, which can give your reader an uncomfortable, letdown feeling.

In my current work-in-progress (WIP), I am debating that very thing. The overarching plot concerns my protagonist and his struggle against his own stoic, rather cold nature. Throughout the course of the story, events with his girlfriend and mother shift, he evolves slowly, sometimes painfully, finally reaching the point at which we know he will be able to connect with the people around him in a meaningful way. Along the way, I introduced a side plot that was initially there to add texture and explain my character’s background. What I’ve found is that I actually have the mechanism built into the story that could bring this side plot full circle and resolve another big part of my character’s personality. So now my dilemma is, do I tie it all up neatly? Or let the side plot just hang?

One of my favorite movies mixes these two scenarios into a jarring yet pleasing whole. This is the Clint Eastwood Western Unforgiven. In the movie, Will Munny is a ruthless gunman who gave up that life when he met and married his wife. After her death, struggling to make a go of his rickety pig farm, raising two children alone, he is tempted to return to his old life in order to collect a bounty put on a man who cut up a prostitute. The ensuing battle brings back all the old ruthlessness in spades as Munny cuts down multiple heartless bullies and brings justice (aka vengeance) to the prostitutes. In the end (spoiler alert!), after committing numerous cold-hearted murders, Munny is left alive to return to his home.

At first I thought this ending was one of those uncomfortable, dissatisfying real-life endings where things do not balance out. After all that Munny had done, it would seem only fair that he die in the end. But the more I thought about it, the more the ending made sense. He had done unspeakable things. He had killed countless men. His death would balance the accounts. The worst punishment he could experience was not dying—it was staying alive. Staying alive to ruminate on all that he had done. Staying alive to mourn his dead wife. Staying alive to think about the redemption that lay beyond his grasp.


But now back to my story  …

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Thanks to Military Writers Society of America!

I want to send a huge shout-out of thanks to the Military Writers Society of America. This is an organization that keeps history alive by reviewing and promoting books about all aspects of military history: fiction and non-fiction, biography, young adult, poetry, even children’s books. The society is well-organized and well run, supported by thousands of members and numerous reviewers. Although they get inundated with requests for reviews, they do a good job of staying current and getting the reviews up online as quickly as possible, and to help potential readers wade through the “stacks,” every year they nominate the best of the books they’ve reviewed in a multitude of categories. Along with the traditional categories of military literature, they also nominate the best books in reference, business, humor, spiritual, romance, memoirs, sci-fi and thriller genres.

I was drawn to the MWSA because my most recent book, Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan, seemed a good fit. I joined the group and requested a review. I received an immediate e-mail that they were backed up due to the volume of requests, but I appreciated the communication. It was about 4 months before my review came up, but well worth the wait.

This is the true story of a nurse, Marcia Gates, during World War II and her experiences during the battle of Bataan and three years as a prisoner of war. But it is more than that because this story also relates how the families at home were feeling–frustrated and concerned about their lack of information about Marcia and her safety.

This book is easy to read and many will find it difficult to put down as one wants to know–does Marcia make it home? The format is also augmented by actual letters written by Marcia, other nurses and from family members to Marcia. It may be difficult for some who are so used to the modern e-mail system to even imagine the problems of letters not arriving home for months and how that affected the family who used every resource they could to get any information they could of their daughter. The author uses these letters to carefully weave a true account of what was happening on both sides of the world.

I found the story exciting, surprised by some of the descriptions of conditions and wondered why I hadn’t heard this story before. The author has brought out one of the untold stories of World War II–about a nurse. I believe this book will have wide appeal to many audiences including: medical personnel, historians, veterans and anyone interested in good story with a happy ending. –Edward Kelly 

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was notified that my book had also been nominated for Best Biography of the year! I felt deeply honored to have my book placed in such prodigious company. The MWSA has an annual conference (this year in Dayton, Ohio) where they pull out all the stops for their members and authors. The conference offers a multitude of workshops, lectures, one-on-ones with publishing insiders, social activities and the coveted awards ceremony. They also sell books and offer an anthology compounded exclusively for the conference. It’s one-stop shopping for anyone who loves reading and writing about military history in all its guises.
Unfortunately for me, I was unable to attend the conference. I waited on pins and needles for the awards, however.
It was somewhat of a letdown to find out my book did not, in fact, win the gold medal for biographies, but it was gratifying to receive an Honorable Mention. I am sure the voting was done fairly and the books that won the top awards deserved them. And after all, I never suspected that my slim volume of a very personal, family story would ever receive such recognition. It was exciting and encouraging to have my book so honored, even if it didn’t bring home the top prize.
As a writer, I have found that the MWSA does a tremendous job promoting authors and their books. Not only do they review and showcase the books and give prestigious awards to the best, but they continue to support the author long after the conference is over. I continue to get messages about book promotion sites, about bloggers and radio stations wanting to interview authors and other opportunities to get the word out. Unlike many promotional organizations, the MWSA does not simply post a review and then forget it. It actively invests time and effort into keeping its membership in the limelight. Like the servicemen and women represented in the thousands of books, the MWSA never sleeps. It continues to carry the banner of literacy, history, honor and humanity ever forward.
MWSA, I salute you.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Formatting for E-Books

With so much of the publishing world going digital, it’s important for authors to wade into the e-book tsunami that is flooding the industry. Some authors may assume the e-book format is exactly like a physical book format, which is a large mistake. Others may assume formatting for e-books is terribly difficult, another mistake. Actually e-books are an entirely different animal and somewhere in between, but they are definitely doable.

With print books, you (or your editor) control exactly how that book will appear; you control the size of the font, the white space, the size of the page. Whatever you decide the format should be is exactly what your reader will see.

With e-books, it’s not that simple. Readers may have any of a dozen reading devices, not even counting the Cloud on their computer or their smart phones. What this means is that an e-book must flow into any of these devices, whatever the size or shape of the screen, and still be readable.

Okay, how do you do that?

You do that by simplifying.

First of all, use a common, easy-to-read font. You might choose Times New Roman, Arial or Garamond, but don’t use an exotic or fancy font that may not be supported by e-readers. The best size font is 11 or 12, 14 at the very most. Don’t forget that most e-readers allow their owners to magnify or decrease the size of the font to suit them. If you want to use a particular font for your title or chapter headers, the best way to ensure that the reader sees what you want them to see is to create an image and insert that in the proper place. More on images below.

Choose your paragraph style. Either use a block paragraph format (as this blog is: no indent and a blank line between paragraphs) or a first-line indent style. Either is fine, but choose one and be consistent, and don’t mix the two. If you choose to indent, don’t use tabs. Indent by choosing or creating a paragraph style and format all your paragraphs with that style rather than manually. It’s also a good idea to get rid of total justification in text, allowing ragged edges which spread the words from margin to margin. Fully justified text sometimes shows up with large gaps between words.

Don’t use page breaks, section breaks or large quantities of blank lines to separate sections of your book. Because e-books flow continuously through an e-reader, page breaks (and page numbers, for that matter) are useless. If you want to show some separation between chapters or sections of the book, use “hard” line returns, but no more than four at a time. More than four blank lines could simply show up as blank screens on the e-reader, confusing and annoying your reader.

Along with getting rid of page numbers, get rid of any headers or footers. Text boxes are an absolute no-no, and you will need to convert any tables into images.

As you can see, what we are doing is essentially “stripping down” the book to its barest essentials. Once you’ve done that, though, you need to check and make sure no unwanted and unnecessary formatting remains. How do you do that?

In MS Word, there is a button on the top Home menu that looks like a paragraph symbol ( ¶ ); clicking this button allows you to see all formatting in your document—spaces, tabs, indents, section breaks; it makes all the invisible visible*. You may be surprised at how much junky formatting is left over, even after you’ve stripped it down. Word tries to be “helpful” by having quite a bit of automatic formatting, plus any mistakes made while typing can insert an invisible but problematical bit of formatting. This way, you can see everything that’s in there and strip it out even more than you already have.

(*This sentence should be true, but it’s sometimes not. Recently a friend found that her e-book contained the number 3 centered alone on lines between paragraphs of her book, and she could find no evidence of anything to account for it, even when she made all formatting visible as above. She was then forced to go to the next step.)

If, however, you’ve done this and still have some weird results that you can’t trace, there’s a method to “nuke” all formatting. This method is endorsed by Smashwords, but with a caution. Doing this will get rid of all formatting, so that means that you’ll have to go back in afterward and re-format the book the way you want it. Here’s how to do it:

Open your Word document and copy the entire thing, then paste it all into Notepad or some other text application. You’ll see all your formatting disappear. Now copy the entire body of text in Notepad and paste it into a NEW blank Word document. Now your document is as clean as you can get it, but you will need to go back in and re-format your chapter headers, etc. (For more about the Smashwords style guide, go here.)

Images can be particularly annoying in e-books; they have a tendency to jump about or not appear correctly. I’ve found the best way to deal with images is, again, simply. Insert your image where you want it, but do not change the text wrapping to anything from the default “in line with text.” You can certainly change the placement of the picture to left-justified, centered or right-justified, but beyond that, just leave it alone. Type in captions below the picture (choose a different style for those to set them off from the main text), but do not use the automatic caption feature of Word or a text box.

Finally, because so often e-reader devices support wifi and the internet, you can do something with your e-book that you can’t do with physical books—connect your reader to you online. It’s a simple matter to add an About the Author section to the end of the book with links to your Facebook, Twitter, blog or website.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

DIY Focus Groups

Writing is a very isolated endeavor. Ideas spawn in our minds and we nurture them in our silent brain cells. We enlarge on them, imagine them growing, changing, moving forward, but it’s all very quietly within us until we set it down on paper. Even that process is isolated unless we have someone hanging over our shoulder waiting breathlessly for every word.

When we’ve finished our story-telling, the time has arrived for us to step out of our secluded little world and present our creation to others. We’ve captured our imaginings, we’ve pushed and prodded and wrangled and polished and refined until we are 100% certain it’s good and it’s done.

Or are we?

It’s not enough to write the book (although, of course, that’s the biggest milestone), and publishing now is not that hard if you choose to go the self-publishing route, which many of us are doing. So you’ve written the book, you’re ready to publish, but how do you reach out to the readers? How do you say to them, “This is a good book; take a look; read it!”

Think of the cover of your book as the doorway. This is the place where you put out the welcome mat for the reader and beckon them to enter. This is the place where you invite them to suspend their normal sense of time and space and enter into a different world. The cover of your book is the threshold, the connection, the passage. It will either call a reader in or turn them away.

Packaging is very much an instant, impulse thing. I’ve heard it said that a book has less than 10 seconds to grab a reader’s interest (perhaps even as little as 3 or 4). The title, the cover, the backcover blurb, even the predominant color of the book all must be crafted in a way that entices the reader to look deeper.

So how do you know how your book cover strikes readers? How do you know what it says to them?

Answer that question by creating your own focus group.

In the digital age, this is not that hard to do. Many writers have their own webpages already in place, and that’s a perfect vehicle for creating a focus group. Many writers also have blogs, and although these cannot be as focused on a target group as a webpage, they can still afford a window on the world for those who find webpages challenging.

When my book Goddess Rising was ready to publish, I had a couple ideas about the cover. My editor and I talked back and forth about it, but I really wanted input from the people this book would appeal to. (My editor, sweet man that he was, thought the book was worthy of publication but never really “got” it.) I have to admit, this book was difficult to market. Set in the future, the book is about a time when a geologic holocaust has destroyed civilization and left only a few scattered colonies of people who have reverted back to a simple agrarian lifestyle and worship the Great Goddess. Their one hope lies in a dream-given prophecy that Greer the Sibling, a female savior, will arise and lead the people back to greatness. The book follows Greer’s journey from simple obscurity to prophesied reign as she struggles with her destiny and discovers the rewards of power—and the price.

My first title for the book was The Sibling, simple but nondescript. One friend told me it sounded like a slasher movie, so I think I tossed it at that point. I wanted to convey the two-fold theme of the book, the rising of the Great Goddess and the rising of Greer. I finally settled on She Rises, a title that could refer to either, or both, themes.

For my graphic, I turned to one of my very favorite artists in the whole world, Meinrad Craighead. Meinrad was raised in a dynamic blend of Catholicism (she was a nun for many years) and awareness of the Great Goddess, and she weaves the living themes of both into her strong, iconic paintings. The one that I particularly liked for my book is called Mother and Daughter. I felt the graphic conjured up all relationships between all women: mother to daughter, of course, but also sister to sister and woman to Goddess.

Another piece of artwork that struck me was a painting by Dennis Davidson called Spatium Lux. Diametrically different than Meinrad’s, the space art of Davidson was at once evocative, spectacular and stunning. It had a very different feel than the warm tones of Mother and Daughter, but I liked and considered both. At the same time, my editor suggested Goddess Rising for the title, so I incorporated that into my options.

Armed with these graphics, I played around in MS Word, creating a mock book cover and trying out several different colors, different configurations, different fonts. When I had a range of styles, I put them up on a web page and asked several friends to take a look and tell me their reactions. Because I put up a new, unpublicized web page off my main page, I was able to e-mail friends the link and control who saw the page.


I invited friends to chime in on color, style, placement, font. I wanted to hear all about how the book cover and all its elements invited or intimidated, intrigued or turned off. I was mildly surprised when the votes for title favored Goddess Rising and the space art over She Rises with Meinrad. The votes also overwhelmingly preferred the center layout with the graphic making up the entire book cover, a layout I liked as well.


My next job was getting approval to use the artwork. I contacted Mr. Davidson but found him reluctant to let me use his work. He was unsure about the fit of my story with his art and being an artist of a different kind, I could well understand and respect that. This book is not for everyone. If I wasn’t 100% sure my story would be enhanced by someone else’s art, I wouldn’t marry the two, either. I resigned myself to another search for a fitting graphic.

As coincidence would have it, an acquaintance who knew I liked all things space sent me an e-mail with a stunning NASA photo. This man had no knowledge of my book or my struggles with the cover, but just happened to send me the most perfect picture I could imagine. Well, almost perfect. I had a feeling the arm of the Space Station wouldn’t quite fit in.

The good news about this was not only that I loved the picture, but that as a NASA file, it was easily accessible. If I remember correctly, it cost me something like $10 or $20 to get a beautiful hi-res copy of the photo. My editor immediately went to work tweaking it for the book cover. What resulted was, I thought, absolutely stunning, a book I was proud to hand out to readers.

As isolated as we are when we’re writing, any author concerned about the commercial success of their books can benefit greatly by using a focus group. When I look at this book, I see not only my own story, but the nudging encouragement of my talented editor and helpful friends. This book truly was a labor of love from many standpoints.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Blog Awards!

What a wonderful surprise! I was out of touch for a week while I was at a meeting for work, and when I resurfaced, I found my blog had been awarded not one but two blog awards! These peer blog awards are a thoughtful and friendly way to recognize bloggers and let them know we appreciate what’s being written. So often we painstakingly send our missives out into the blogosphere and have no idea if anyone’s even looking. This is a nice way to recognize what’s out there and “pay it forward.”

Thank you to Charmaine Elizabeth for the One Lovely Blog Award. Charmaine’s blog is  

So what is the One Lovely Blog Award?
Rules for the One Lovely Blog award are to thank the blogger who nominated you, give seven facts about yourself, post the blog award badge on your site, and nominate other noteworthy blogs, notifying them you did so.  Here are my facts:

1.  I’ve been writing since I was 5 years old.

2.  My mantra is: This, too, shall pass. It’s so easy to think that whatever situation we’re in is going to last forever, but thankfully—or not—it doesn’t.

3.  I got my first gray hair when I was 13 years old.

4.  I’m a certified hypnotherapist and think hypnosis is the best thing since sliced bread. It’s easy, amazingly helpful and beneficial and it’s fun.

5.  I’m a Grammar Nazi.

6.  I cannot imagine life without a dog or a cat (preferably both), books, sunsets, music, clean sheets of paper, pens, clouds, wild animals, mountains, waterfalls, hummingbirds, fall color, chocolate, starry skies and butter, not necessarily in that order.

7.  I believe we are put on this earth to learn, to grow, and to help each other grow.

My award pick is: by Rosanne Dingli. Rosanne has several books that combine art, history, travel, mystery and fast-paced action into compelling stories.

Other blogs that I think are especially helpful to all writers:

Thanks to Sunni Morris for giving me the Liebster Blog award. Her blog is here:

What is the Liebster Blog Award?
The Liebster Blog Award is given to up and coming bloggers who have less than 200 followers.  Liebster is German for pleasant, valued, and many other synonyms.  The rules for this one state that you answer the 11 questions asked of you by the Blogger who gave you this award.  You then nominate other blogs and leave your own list of questions for those bloggers.   

Sunni’s questions for me to answer are below.

1.  What is your greatest achievement so far and why?

That’s a tough one. I think my greatest achievement is living the life I want to live. I’ve heard so  many people moan about the city or state they live in, how they’d love to move but they can’t because of (choose one) job, family, economy/money. Although my life is somewhat confined by the need to earn a living, my husband and I have always been willing to move to places that fit our lifestyle and do things we enjoy. I have never been shackled to a location because of work, family, or lack of imagination. I live in places I love (Arizona), I go places that haunt me (Australia), and I do what I can’t imagine not doing—writing and publishing. It doesn’t get any better.

2.  How do you spend your free time?

Free time always seems to be at a premium; there are always so many “have-tos” to get done. My favorite enjoyment is (surprise!) reading. Beyond that, I absolutely love being out in wilderness places, watching wild animals, enjoying the sun, the wind, the clouds, thunderstorms and clear night skies.

3.  What is your favorite season and why?

I have always loved fall; love the feel of the air, the colors of the leaves, the breezes, the clouds. However, in Arizona, things are slightly topsy-turvy and we don’t have the fall color here I had in California or Oregon. Here in AZ, spring is the best, when everything starts waking up, greening up, budding up.

4.  If you could live anywhere besides where you do now, places today or times back in history, where would it be and why?

My two most favorite places on the planet are the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, and it would be awesome to live at either. I’m already close; after retirement will soon be closer.

5. To date, what has been your worst disappointment in life?

It may sound weird, but I can’t think of any. Oh, I’ve had disappointments, sure, but the worst? Seems like every disappointment I’ve had has been a springboard to something better. I got laid off at my job at the phone company after 21-1/2 years; I soon found my current job at the National Observatory, the absolutely hands-down best job ever. I’ve had rejection letters on several of my books that cut my heart out, but I’ve now published 10 books to date, both traditionally and self-published. How bad can a disappointment be if we overcome it? They don’t even rate.

6.  How did you get interested in writing?

I have been writing stories since I was 5, too long ago to even remember why. I guess I’ve just always been a natural-born story-teller.

7.  What advice would you give a new writer?

Stay true to yourself and your story. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a lack of confidence, by contrary “advice” given by “experts,” but no one knows the story that’s in your heart and mind like you do. Accept constructive criticism cautiously, mull it around, lay the blueprint of your story over it and see if it fits. If it does, great; you’ve made your story stronger. If it doesn’t, throw it out! You are the only and best authority of what you want to write.

8.  If you could start all over in life, would you change anything?

The only thing I would change in my life would be the timing on my own leap of confidence (see 7 above). I spent too many years believing others knew better than I did what I needed to do or write. I spent too many years trying to make other people happy instead of taking responsibility for my own happiness.

9. What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done?

Exciting, hmmm. Para-sailing in Hawaii? Zip-lining in Costa Rica? Adult Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama? Digging fire agates out of a mine in California? All fun and exciting, but the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done was going to Machu Picchu. I’ve wanted to see this place for myself ever since I first heard of it as a kid and it was everything I’d dreamed and hoped it would be. It is one of, if not the, most amazing places on earth.

10.  Are you scared of anything, or do you conquer all your fears and do it anyway?

Ha! I have a horrible fear of heights and my favorite place in the whole world is the Grand Canyon. Go figure. I doubt I’ll ever “conquer” my fear of heights, but I contain it as much as possible to be able to enjoy my small adventures. I have pushed through enough to go para-sailing and zip-lining, both hugely fun even tho terrifying. Sky-diving? Never!

11.  What are the best five words that would describe you?

Positive, confident, thoughtful, encouraging, imaginative.

My award for a great blog is: by Lynn Kelley. Lynn has a knack for writing as and about kids, something that eludes me. In reading just a bit of her latest, Double Digits, I realized that she has nailed the life of a 10-year-old.

Now, my questions to my awardee:

1. Who do you most admire and why?

2. What’s the most difficult challenge you’ve ever overcome?

3. What has writing taught you about yourself?

4. What’s your favorite book (not your own) and why?

5. What inspires you?

6. As a reader, what’s your biggest complaint?

7. What are you grateful for?

8. What’s your best advice for aspiring writers?

9. What’s your perfect environment for writing? (Place, time of day, peripherals)

10. What’s your first consideration for choosing books to read?

11. Tell us something about you that most people don’t know.

Thanks again for the awards! Now get out there and pay it forward!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Living and Dying by Reviews

We’ve all heard the phrase:

If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword.

For no one is that truer than for writers. Writers are artists; when we write, we are creating a picture for our readers, a picture made of words. Some may believe that writing can be formulaic or mechanical (an opinion I do not share), but any writing is creative. From the entire text of War and Peace to the one sentence describing tonight’s 8PM sitcom, writing is crafted to interest, engage and invite the reader in. As such, like any creation, it contains a part of the person writing it. All creations are open to interpretation, which lead to opinions, which lead to

>#$&> REVIEWS. <#%&<

Reviews are the bugaboo of any artist. We all struggle to convey that story, that image, that dance or poem we feel inside, but convey to whom? To our audience. We may write the definitive novel of a generation or paint the most iconic picture every conceived, but if it’s hidden in a cabinet so no one sees it, what’s the point? We have, at this rate, only covered half the distance we need to go. Our creations cannot be fully appreciated until they connect with another person.

Therein lies the problem.

I have been handed a copy of what a friend says is the best book he’s ever read; I can’t get past the first chapter. I recommend what I think is the best book on the planet to another friend; she says, “Meh.”

What’s up with that?

How can two individuals have such widely diverse opinions about the same thing? Actually, it’s easy. When we approach a creation, be it a book, a picture, a performance or a building, we are looking at it through filters. We all, as we are growing from childhood to adulthood and beyond, add filters. If you’re bitten by a Weimeraner dog at the age of 5, you may develop a sense that all gray dogs are evil, especially gray dogs with yellow eyes. If you eat too much pecan pie when you’re 8 and get violently ill, you may hate pecans in any form (even if you actually liked the taste of them). By the same token, if you have your first Shirley Temple on your 10th birthday which just happens to be the best day ever of your life so far, you associate Shirley Temples with fun and feelings of happiness. We all have these types of experiences that, over time, transform into opinions and expectations. Because they become reality for us (and we’ve carried them around all our lives), they are transparent to us, but we are still looking through the colored lenses of them at everything around us. My experiences were different than yours; my lenses (filters) are different than yours. We may both be looking at the same thing, but we see it differently.

Obviously these examples are grossly simplified; most associations like this are much more subtle and complex. So much so that we may never know the beginnings of our biases, and in fact we may not even know we have them. But we all have them.

Enter reviews. We’ve created our masterpiece, it’s up on and  …. OMG! Someone gave it FIVE stars! Yahoo! I wasn’t the only one who thought the book was good. And look what else they said: “compelling,” “riveting,” or “a must read.” A good review is like warm sunlight starring the heart, like the swelling pride of accomplishment, like the contented satisfaction of a job well done. Basking in this kind of light is validation that all the hard work, the research, the stops and starts, the frustrations―all of it was worthwhile. We can stand tall with our head held high.

This is every author’s dream.

But hold on; here’s another review and they gave it only ONE star! For any writer, this is akin to a knife in the gut. And it gets worse. The review itself uses such words as “trite,” “boring,” or even “terrible,” pretty much the same as twisting said knife in ever vicious ways. We read the review with held breath, wanting to look away but needing to see. Each word is a new wound. Each word lands on us with dark weight, slumping our shoulders, burying us, squeezing the breath from us. The book―and the author by association―is a failure.

This is every author’s nightmare.

I remember back in the late 80’s when I had sent a manuscript to a publisher for consideration. I got it back with the simple, generic “Doesn’t meet our needs” rejection letter, but something else was stuck between pages of the book: the worksheet of a reader. It was handwritten on yellow legal paper, obviously notes jotted hurriedly while reading. It was the most jarring, dismissive, condemning thing I’ve ever read. I know the publisher did not mean to leave that in there; I know it wasn’t meant for me to see, but I did see it. Even now, almost 25 years later, when I don’t even remember which book it was, don’t remember which publisher it was, I still remember how I felt when I read that. I felt eviscerated.

So how do we handle this dichotomy? It would be easy to believe that the positive reviewer was a sensible, intelligent, honest individual with sterling taste, and that the negative reviewer was a narrow-minded, ignorant jerk, but the truth is more likely neither of those. The truth is people are different and they have different opinions. Every reader sees through their own set of lenses, a collection of their own experiences, biases, and expectations. No one ever looks at any creation with a completely objective eye.

I’ve learned to consider reviews carefully. Of course I love the good ones and hate the bad ones, but I have to consider them all. The first thing I might have to do when dealing with a bad one is leave it and go do something else. The initial emotional response to a bad review is not conducive to rational thought. When I feel that I’ve calmed down enough to be rational again, I will go back to the bad review and read it again, but this time I will be open to the reader’s opinion. I will mentally hold the review up next to my book, really take it inside the deepest, truest part of me and see if there is real truth in what was said. Sometimes, as painful as it is to admit that, there might be. Sometimes there isn’t, and I really can dismiss the review as an “off” opinion. Maybe the reader had a bad day that day. Maybe they were expecting something different and didn’t find it in my book. There could be a zillion reasons why someone didn’t like the book, but obviously I can’t write a zillion versions of my book in order to please everyone. I can only write what I believe in, what I think has value, what I enjoy and want to share. Some will like it and some won’t. Fact of life.

As an illustration, just the other day I got word that one of my books has been nominated for a Best Biography award by a military writer’s society. Quite an honor and a very pleasant surprise. That same day I happened to check another booksite for reviews of the same book, and found one that said, “Not worth the price.” Ouch.

You live by the sword and you die by the sword.

But you keep on writing.