Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sharing Pixel Blue Eyes - Her "Tails of Adventure": The Joy of a Good Book & a Giveaway - "The Case of...

What a glorious way to end 2014 and celebrate the year. A fun little blogger named Pixel Blue Eyes paid me the highest honor a pup can bestow by reviewing my second novel The Case of the Wayward Fae. There are times when words escape me about my own work, but this boisterous bundle has brought me to that magical moment where I wish I could say it better myself in describing the dynamic within the pages of this work. They say great things come in small packages, and nothing could be truer than this playful pup. If you have never had the pleasure of reading her posts, here is a great introduction. Don't just read it for my sake, though her review is one of the best ever. Read her blog because it is fun to read.

Pixel Blue Eyes - Her "Tails of Adventure": The Joy of a Good Book & a Giveaway - "The Case of...: Merry Christmas Eve Friends! Although it's "Wordless Wednesday", I have much to say because I just finished a GRAND ADVENTUR...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nasty Little Habits - Building Numbers At the Expense of Common Decency

Pet peeves. In truth, I don't have many in life, but thanks to the birth of social media, I am developing a growing little arsenal of them that begin and end with how we, as a human beings....are beginning to treat one another on a day to day basis. Perhaps I am a bit naïve in my expectations of the world, but I was always brought up with the idea of something called "common courtesy" when it came to dealing with others and how they might feel. In the realm of social media faux pas, let us take a look at Twitter for example, because my latest and greatest pet peeve has grown out of that realm's 140-character mode of social buckshot communication.

Allow me to begin my rant with a caveat that says I don't know what the heck I am doing when it comes to marketing and self-promotion. I love writing my novels. I occasionally (very occasionally) get a blog post idea. You can tell I am not great at it because I usually only manage about one blog post a month if I am lucky - hardly impressive by anyone's standards. I am not much for social media, and I don't know how to sell myself to the world at large. Probably not something I should be openly admitting, but what the heck.

In fact, talking about myself as though I am something worth noticing is the hardest thing for me to do. Ask me about writing, and I can make a good conversation. Ask me about topics that interest me, and I can pretty much talk all day. Ask me about my dog, and I positively yammer on without end. Ask me about me, and I tend to hem and haw, shuffle my feet, stare at the ceiling, and pray for a giant Acme hole to spontaneously appear beneath me.

In spite of my ineptitude, I have managed well enough in this highly electronic social world of ours, and I am learning new things every day. I am "getting out" more on the Internet, and am making connections with people around the world that I never would have made without this ever-growing global network. Now here is where I begin to rankle.

I realize that everyone is terribly busy which means having a personal, deep, unending friendship with all five bazillion people you are connected to is not only hard to manage; it is downright unrealistic and impossible. If you are a writer like me, you probably have a day job (or two), you have writing projects, editing tasks that you avoid with great vigor, 'to do' lists that are a mile long, all piled on top of that odd thing we like to call the rest of your daily life. Since there are still only twenty four hours in a day (last time I checked), that leaves about ten minutes to throw out a few general tweets, make a few new connections, write on a blog post, and get about fifteen minutes of sleep before the next day starts..... assuming your dog hasn't demanded you use those precious remaining minutes for play time. In which case, the dog wins out, you get no sleep, but you feel better having made your pooch happy.

If this sounds anything like your life, you can understand why my spending a few minutes a day (when I can) to say hi to new connections, to reach out to new people, to take that time in general, is such a big thing for me. I generally remember each and every person I connect with, especially when I have interacted with them in some meaningful capacity.

Here is how my Twitter peeve has been birthed. It usually starts out the same. I see someone has followed me. I go to their page, make sure they aren't a perv or general bad guy (as much as I can in this day and age), I thank them for the follow, I follow them back, and do my best to find some way to connect with them on a personal level. It might be their reference to coffee in their short blurb about themselves. It might be the dog they have in their picture. It might be a tweet they just posted about something that is important to them. Whatever it is, I try and take the time to say something to them that relates to them. Invariably it leads to a back and forth, and those are the things I remember.

Once the connection is made, I do an odd thing. I share my connections. I share because I know most people are trying to build their numbers, their audience, their exposure to the world. Writers are looking for readers. Artists are looking for buyers. Restaurants are looking for patrons. Heck, even puppy pages are looking for people to just be silly with. So I share to help other people connect because I know how hard it is for me. What I have discovered is that with some people, there is a darker purpose to their "reaching out". I call it surface boosting, and it is one of the most underhanded and unkind trends to hit the Twitter community since its inception.

The way you do it simple. You reach out to a bunch of people and follow them. Most people (like me) will follow back. You pretend to be interested and you pretend to want to connect. You maintain that connection for a few months until things die down. People get busy. Conversations ebb. When your followers least expect it, you unfollow their account. Unless they are using a service like Unfollow, they won't even know it has happened. Go through this process enough times and your number of followers will soar while the number of people you follow remains relatively low. The lower the number of people you follow and the larger the number of your followers, the more special the next victims feel. It's like the new kid getting friend bombed by the popular kid just so the popular kid can pump the new kid for information and leave the new kid lying in the dust where the popular kid found him.

Why would anyone do this? Well, there is a tremendous amount of pressure out there for people looking to make a name for themselves to "make their bones." Unfortunately part of the pressure comes in the form of a popularity contest.

For the indie author or even the small time published author, one of the first questions that is asked is "What kind of a following do you have?" Twitter and Facebook have become one of the fastest ways to gauge that following when measurable sales figures are not readily at hand or when those figures are too small to impress. For whatever reason, more and more professional hopefuls believe that the lower their "Following" numbers are, the more legitimate, popular, or important they think they appear to the rest of the world.

The thing is, in the world we live in today, my pet peeve has a double-edged sword. Things have a way of coming around full circle. I have seen it enough times in my life to know it is true. For example, the person who is abused by their supervisor may one day be the big boss for another company, and the jerk who gave them such a hard time when they were the low man on the totem pole may be the one begging them for employment.

The lesson here is simple. Courtesy and kindness don't cost you anything. In fact, they are two free investments in life that offer the richest rewards. No one forgets the jerk who screwed them over, but more importantly, everyone remembers the person who showed a little kindness when they didn't have to. Whether you are famous or unknown, your actions will have a bearing on your life. What that impact is in the long run remains entirely up to you.

I will just say that Karma is a witch, and I am pretty sure she has a blog and a Twitter account, so tread lightly on the feelings of those around you lest you find yourself a victim of your own unkind devices. Some day you may need the help of someone you tried to dupe in the past. They may or may not remember your duplicity, but in a day and age when everything and everyone has an electronic memory, it is best to play it safe and treat everyone with the courtesy you wish to receive in turn.


If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+FacebookGoodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Like Carmen San Diego, Where Have Our Words Gone?

I had a rather interesting encounter the other day in a writer's group that got me thinking about the direction our world is taking where language is concerned. I did not like what I saw. I had shared a blog post of mine related to book covers with the hopes that my past experiences might help someone else...some other struggling author who is wondering why sales are slow and is asking the question could the cover be the culprit?

I have a general love of words, though I would never categorize myself as a word smith or haughty when it comes to their use. I merely believe in celebrating word usage when and where I can, and so I seek to broaden my vocabulary beyond the monosyllabic guttural grunting that seems to have become the mode of communication in some circles over the last few years.

Horror of horrors, I elected to use the term 'gander' in my in take a gander....take a look or glance. One would have thought I had used some truly archaic term, for I found myself filleted to a most discourteous and unkind level. It was a public filleting that was carried out between the group's moderator and some yahoo, (yes I said yahoo) from a country that is supposedly known for its classical prose. He should have known better. Not that gander is particularly classical in nature, but to question whether a word is "usable" is a bit odd to me, considering the platform in which my public humiliation took place.

The gist of their criticism was that no one ever uses that word - gander- except for perhaps super old people or those who are shamefully outdated. REALLY? Both men called themselves writers, and yet they buried me for using a word that may not be common vernacular but was by no means pulled from the pool of dead languages. Are we not as writers drawn to the challenge of expanding what our general readership is exposed to - whether we are broadening their understanding of culture, language, perception, reason, imagination, or vocabulary? Since when did being a writer mean that we were limited to the bounds of what society has defined for us?

I thought my experience was bad enough, but apparently, the plague of judgmental-ism has gone well beyond what words a person chooses to employ in their personal blog posts and now enters into the realm of what they choose to read for their own private entertainment.

Today, a fellow writer introduced me to what I consider a very shocking diatribe against those "vulgar" adults who dare to find pleasure in reading any books classified as YA - either by the author's hand or by the book seller's. If you love to read, gird your loins before approaching this article. It is guaranteed to give you a red behind. The gist of the article is that any adult who finds pleasure in the pages of a book not categorized within their rigid age bracket should be ashamed. Flagellate yourself with a cat of nine tails ashamed. Why? Quite simply for finding pleasure in the pages of a book.

I know....I am oversimplifying the argument in the article but what can I say? Trying to re-express an absurdity is, well, absurd. Who is to say what is "age appropriate" and what is not? It wasn't that long ago that books like Little Women and Ivanhoe were considered children's literature, yet today, no college literature class would be considered complete without them. And let us not forget the many variations of the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood - staples for centuries to entertain the young at heart. There are college courses dedicated to the topics, and no one bats an eye or questions whether they are considered "appropriate."

 So what does this new article say about the world that we are living in now? Will we start slapping away the hands of young children when they dare to reach for a book that falls outside of their age bracket? Will we punish them if they breach the reading list prescribed for them by the chosen few who "know best" about what is appropriate to read at a given age and what is not? Will we sew a ruby-colored letter on the front of their clothes to brand them for all the world to see if they break the reading laws established by the Draconian few who have established these public rules of reading? It sounds extreme and bizarre and far fetched, but such tactics of censorship and separation that are encouraged by the article I mention were not so uncommon in eras that saw the likes of Hilter and Stalin. Censorship is always a precursor to tyrannical rule.

As a writer, I push the limits of reality and explore beyond what is possible or even probable within the worlds I create. I dare to dream the unimaginable. To do so means I must throw off the shackles of the restrictive constraints of this world and explore whatever my heart is drawn to. Whether it is drawn to the simple kindness in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories after a particularly hard day at work or to the darkened pages of Tolstoy is really no one's affair. I will say, to judge someone because they choose to read one book over another is rather sad, and takes a narrow view of the world.

No, I don't like every book, and I am not inclined to read everything that has ever been printed. It is my prerogative to reject what I abhor and embrace what speaks to my heart. I do not however need to beat another person over the head because of what they choose to read. They are reading, which is a positive sign for me - a writer -who is hoping to find an audience for my books.

In a day and age when most people's general mode of communication has been reduced to a 140 character tweet, the very fact that there are books out there to draw the general populace into a world of broader expression gives me hope for our future as a sentient race. Truly, what is wrong with connecting with our younger selves; rejoicing in the time of our lives when the world was a simpler place? It is after all in our youth when we learn to hope and dream and seek the possibilities that the world holds for us. It is as we age that our dreams begin to diminish; our hopes begin to wither and die; and we begin to forget that the world still holds promise for us.

The article I read made me sad; not so much for the world but for the writer of the article itself. I found it interesting that as she criticized the adult world at large for their love of reading YA books, she was well versed in the genre herself, indicating she had partaken in many a title over the years. Seems rather petty to criticize in one hand and do the very thing which you find abhorrent in the other. All the same, she has only herself to answer to.

As for me, I take great pride in thumbing my nose at convention. I am a child at heart, and I take great delight in finding wonder in the very things which captivated me when I was a girl. I will cling to my sillykins with both hands, and if I become the topic of another's derision, so be it. At least I am comfortable in my own skin. I don't know if the critics of this world can say the same thing.


If you enjoyed this article, follow H.L. Stephens on FacebookTwitter, and Google+. If you love to read, check out her Victorian Era mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book retailers online.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Say It Isn't So......Covers Really Do Make a Difference

We are always admonished never to judge a book by its cover, but in truth our judgment of packaging is a prejudice we apply liberally every day. Industries of every shape, size, color, kind, and creed play upon this judgmental tendency in an effort to draw our attention away from the competition and towards their product. I am not immune to the tactics, even as I apply my logic to the shopping list in hand. I find myself invariably drawn to the flavored water bottle with the refreshing cluster of juicy fruit painted upon the label when compared to the flat, unappealing label that bores me to death with words of promise for quenching my thirst. The prettily painted bottle might taste like moistened gym socks, but chances are I will reach for the packaging that appeals to me the most. Book covers are no different.

No one ever likes to admit their folly, so for me to acknowledge, in writing, the mistakes of my cover art for my first novel is tantamount to my standing naked before the world and giving each gathering gawker twenty minutes to draw their own personal crowd to watch me squirm. The funny thing about mistakes, however, is they offer us the opportunity to learn valuable lessons, and lessons are meant to be shared with others. What you choose to do with the information is entirely up to you.

When I first began writing The Case of Jack the Nipper, I had a vivid image in my head of what the characters looked like. They were as real to me as the world around me. I knew the sound of their voices, the jaunty manner of their walk, the nuances that made them who they were. It was like watching a movie of old friends. I did my best to capture those images in a painting of the two main characters; the result of which you see to the left. I was so excited by my efforts, I used a portion of it on my business cards, on bookmarks, and even on the first book cover of the first release.

I should have known there was a problem when I started handing out my business cards and people would say, "Oh you write children's books." Their smiles always weakened as they said this as though to utter it carried with it some sort of dread disease.

"No," would be my polite reply. "My books are meant for an older audience." I would proceed to explain what my book was about. I had my schpeel which often would liven them up a bit, but the damage was already done. People had already passed judgment on my book based on the cover. The colors of my painting were bright and cheerful, but the overall painting did not convey what the book was about. Using it as the cover of my book was a mistake. As a result, it lost me sales; sales that might have moved me farther along the path that I so desperately long to follow. It took me a year to swallow my pride and realize my error.

I found an award winning artist in Greece who designed and created the cover art for the first book. On the one year anniversary of the initial release, I re-released The Case of Jack the Nipper. What a difference the cover made. It grabbed people's attention rather than putting them off. In a single glance, the average passerby could tell there was a mystery involved, and the cat on the cover with the surprised expression intrigued people enough to make them read the back and find out what the book was about.

When my second novel The Case of the Wayward Fae was released, I took no chances. I had learned my lesson the first time and I hired a cover artist with a fantastic reputation and tons of experience to design my cover. Upon release of the book, I was thrilled at the results, and it helped boost sales of the first book as well.

Am I rich as a result of all of this? No. Am I a New York Times Best Seller? No, not yet. But I am a whole lot wiser now than I was when I started out, and I do have people spending their hard-earned money buying my books. It says something about the decisions I have made with my first two novels......that perhaps I got something right.

To draw a reader in, you have to provide three things:
1. A cover that intrigues (that is the appeal that pulls them across the room and sets you apart from all the other books around yours)
2. A great 'pitch' on the back of the cover or inside flap that gives the would-be buyer a sixty-second WOW that pushes him or her past the point of trepidation and over to the realm of wanting to spend their hard earned money on your work.
3. A great story that keeps them searching for your name for other titles when they are done with the one they just bought (assuming you have other titles for them to purchase).

If you can't get past number one, however, you certainly will never make it to number 3.

I am learning to lay down my pride in most things when it comes to this business of writing and publishing. There isn't a whole lot of room for it, outside of taking pride in writing a great story. But I recognize there will always be people out there who are better than I am. There will always be better writers, better artists, better editors, better marketers, better spellers, and people with better hair, and I am okay with that. At least I have enough sense now to leave certain things to the professionals.

If you are going to do a cover for your work, make sure it is a mantel that is worthy of the effort you have put into the rest of the book. Whatever you do, don't half-ass it. You spent forever perfecting the inside. Take some time perfecting the outside. It is after all the first thing people will see of your work. The price of neglecting such an important detail can cost you more than you will ever know, so make it count. Your future reading public awaits you.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune will be ready for release in the Fall of 2014.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tempting the Fates By Setting Your Own Course

There is nothing quite so appealing to a writer as the thought of being published. It is after all what most of us strive for. Few of us write with the plan of hiding our work away so that no one will ever read it. It is our hope to share it with others; to experience their joy in reading the words we painstakingly punched out upon the keyboard or scrawled upon countless sheets of paper. The sharing stage is perhaps the most vulnerable position a writer can put themselves in. Our work is after all a reflection of some portion of ourselves - our emotions, our experiences, our loves, our losses, our weaknesses, our strengths, our hopes, our disappointments. The list goes on. For a writer to present his or her work to the world is tantamount to presenting the soft underbelly to every and any passerby.

The unfortunate reality behind this daring dream to write and share with the world is that the place where creation and distribution intersect is a treacherous one and the paths themselves can be paved with enough pitfalls, challenges, and roadblocks to turn even the bravest among us into simpering little ninnies from time to time. It is a hard road to travel.....this road of writing; one that can feel impossible when first embarked upon. There are enough critics out there who will tell the wide-eyed dreamer there is no hope of success. This is true even for the most talented, steel-hearted writers among us.

When facing such hardships and such hopeless-seeming trials, it is easy to fall prey to advice that would tell the would-be writer to be something he or she is not. It doesn't matter whether the well-meaning direction is to follow the current book trends by trying to create a work that is not the writer's forte or by trying to reinvent one's self by projecting a persona that is not real. Like trying to be edgy and crass when you are really filled with a soft nuggety center that cringes at the very behavior you are attempting to mimic.

Such disingenuous actions in my mind can be the death knell for the hopeful author who is just beginning to find their way. My reason for saying this is simple.....being something you are not is treacherous and darned near impossible to maintain in a consistent manner. Pursuing the path of a writer is hard enough without adding more self-made pitfalls in your own path.

Please understand I am not passing judgment on any who have taken such advice to heart in pursuit of their dreams. We all must do whatever it is we feel is best for us, but at the end of the day, when the world is silent, what then? Can you still recognize the person looking back at you in the mirror? Do you like what you see? If the answer to those questions is no, then perhaps seeking the road less travelled is the best course of action after all.

Duplicity takes energy which, for me, is better used in the creation of fantastical worlds, not in the recreation of a false image of one's self. Just as time is a finite resource, so is the creative energy a writer has to dedicate to his or her craft each day. And trust me when I say, readers and fans can detect a phony. It may take time, but eventually they will see the chink in the proverbial mail. Far better that they fall in love with you for who you are, whether you be, in truth, the edgy, crass individual that makes dinner guests cringe with every word from your mouth or the soft, nuggety soul who tears up at pet commercials. That soft nuggety soul can still write a horror story that will keep the multitudes awake at night, and the edgy, crass individual still has the capacity to move men's souls with the depth in his stories' characters. Such contrasts can make the author more intriguing to the reading audience simply because it is real and different than what they expected.

No one said the path was perfect, nor did they say it would be easy. I struggle each and every day with the boulders that appear before me and the potholes that threaten my progress. My face is sore from the number of times I have fallen down and bumped it on the road I travel. The bumps hurt, and yes, there are times when I sit and wonder if the real 'me' is not enough. Then I look in the mirror and realize I can walk this road another day. My dreams mean everything to me, but not at the expense of myself.
It takes courage to be be yourself, even when the world is telling you that you are not good enough. There will always be someone out there to find fault. There are over six billion people in the world. You are never going to please them all. In my mind though, there is only one person who truly matters and that is the person who is looking back at you in the mirror at the end of the day. If you are happy with what you see, then maybe it's all worth it.
All I know is, today, I got a little farther down the path. A few more people know my name, and I am still writing. I haven't given up. On a path that sees more attrition than just about any other career, I would say that is progress. And who knows. Perhaps tomorrow will be the big day. In a realm where everything is possible, it never hurts to hold on to big dreams. It is when you lay those dreams down and walk away that they cease to come true. So to all my writer friends out is a silent prayer for you that today the path is straight and the way clear. For any others who have dreams that are 'impossible', never give up on them or yourself. The critics will never stop discouraging, it is true, but that doesn't mean you have to give up either. Who knows, you might just beat the odds by tempting the fates and setting your own course.
If you liked what you read, don't forget to sign up the blog through Google+ or by clicking the Join this site button. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 in the series is The Case of Jack the Nipper. Book 2 is The Case of the Wayward Fae. Book 3 The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune will be released in the Fall of 2014.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Life Lessons From My Dog: Never Forget the Importance of Play Time

Have you ever heard the old adage "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"? It is the mantra of my perky Pomeranian, Peanut Pumpkin Pie, except her version is a bit more personal and goes something like "All work and no play makes my mommy a dull girl."

I never truly appreciated the statement or its deeper meaning until Peanut became a part of my life almost 10 years ago....back when I was in the throws of college, trying my darnedest to become an engineer. I certainly didn't grasp its importance to a little fluff ball that was small enough (at the time) to fit into the palm of my hand.

I had always done well in school and rose to whatever challenges were laid at my feet, so when I was offered the opportunity to return to school and get my degree, I chose the most challenging curriculum I could find. Big mistake. It is not that I floundered when faced with the rigors of a top engineering program; it was quite the opposite really. It is just that 9 classes a semester proved a daunting load, and I quickly redefined the concept of what "dull" really meant. I became the poster child for the word and lost my sense of joy in the process.

Peanut was 6 weeks old when she came home with me over Christmas vacation. She was my gift to myself. She was an old soul, even as a baby. It is what people said of me when I was her equivalent age. She was quiet....watchful....ever mindful of the world around her. She did not scamper with her brothers and sisters or pull my shoe laces like countless other little ones had done that I had looked at and walked away from. She did not wander off disinterested by the boring stranger who came to visit her on a whim. She just sat on the hard, concrete floor, watching me.

It was as if Peanut was trying to decide something about me; trying to determine what she would do next; trying to determine if I was worthy of her efforts. She was 4 weeks old when we first met, and yet there was something so infinitely wise about her. I knew that first day I could never love another dog the way I loved her. I knew it when she walked over and asked me to pick her up. I knew it when she looked deeply into my eyes and put her nose to mine. I knew from that first spark of understanding that kindled a passionate love between us that my heart belonged to her, and I would do her bidding for the rest of her life.

Over that Christmas break we bonded. We played and scampered the way new mommies and their fur babies do. We laughed more than I had laughed in some time. She helped me heal from the pain of loss of my Snoopycat some three months before. It was a magical time. I didn't want it to come to an end. But reality came crashing back upon me, and I knew I would soon be leaving for school once more with little Peanut in tow.

Near the end of that break when the restart of the semester was fast approaching, my dad told me a secret to lasting happiness with Peanut. It was a secret I would never forget. Peanut and I were cuddling; all smiles and messy hair and fluffy fur. It was early morning, and we were avoiding the responsibilities of the day. Peanut and I would be packing up our things and heading back toward campus together. I wasn't looking forward to leaving, but in my heart I knew it would be different than it had been before. This time I would not be alone in my little home away from home. I relished the idea of having my new little love with me, especially with as hard as the first part of the semester had been.

The truth is, sometimes our daydreams don't always fall in line with our reality. I felt gushy holding Peanut in my arms in the safety of my real home, far away from the stresses of school, but my father knew me. He knew I was hard-working, focused, driven to do well. He knew how stressed I had been when I had come home and how very near the breaking point I had come. It wasn't enough for me to have a distraction to take my mind off of my school work. I now had a commitment to Peanut, and the choices I made as a result of that commitment would determine how our relationship would develop from that day forward.

His words were simple. "You know honey, Peanut will spent the rest of her life waiting for you. Every ounce of love and devotion she has will be yours from now until the day she dies. It will never waver. It will never end. The least you can do is try to give her your best in return." The secret sounded simple, but it wasn't until I was in the midst of the worst series of exams that I got the meaning of it all.

I arrived back at my apartment after a grueling 4 hour exam. I had less than two hours to eat, rest, and prepare for my next exam which was threatening to be worse than the one I had just left. I was frazzled to a bare, bloody nub. Peanut sensed my stress the moment I walked through the door. Her old soul told her I needed her. We went for a potty walk, but that was all I "had time for". Peanut, in her miniature, infinite wisdom, knew better. Playtime was always the best medicine. She brought me a toy from her corner of the bed. It was her favorite toy. Her giant elephonky. The one that was three times as big as she was. She dragged it over to me and began to gut it with great enthusiasm, right on top of my textbook.

My nerves were raw. Couldn't she see I was busy? Couldn't she see I was stressed? I was too stressed for her games, so I set her on the floor with her toy and gave her a chewy stick. Certainly that was enough.

Then I saw it. The secret my father shared with me slipping away from me as two shiny black eyes stared at me over the edge of the bed. Two wise little eyes that had only wanted to help make things better for me. Two hurt little eyes that didn't understand why I had rejected her. Now it was my turn as I watched little make a decision about which path I would take. Peanut had chosen me when she was no more than an infant; now here was my chance to choose her with all my adult years to guide me.

I closed my textbook, laid it aside, and slid to the floor with my little furry miracle. Peanut and I played for a long time together. We ate lunch on the floor, nibbling from the same plate. We cuddled for some time, and I studied with what time was left over; while Peanut slaughtered an assortment of over-sized stuffed animals against my thigh. It was a great afternoon; the best of that semester. I can't remember how I did on the exam that day. The truth is, it doesn't matter. My greatest lesson and hence my greatest gift was found in the eyes of my wise little girl.

Peanut and I have weathered some pretty hefty storms together. Some worth mentioning; some not. One thing I will say is this. I made the right choice that day. I continue to make that choice every day I have with Peanut, and I listen to the silent wisdom that comes from her shiny black eyes. I am long since out of school, but there are still times when I work from home, whether slaving away at my day job or crafting away at my novels. Regardless of which avenue I am pursuing, Peanut is always there to remind me it is time to take a break and play. I have yet to turn her down. I have yet to say no. The giant elephonky is still her favorite toy of choice.

I guess you might say, with Peanut, life is never dull, but then again, I chose to never let it be so from the day she walked into my life. I let her love be my comfort, and I have yet to regret that decision. May the same be said of all the relationships in my life that matter - that I never fail to put them first in my heart or life and that I never forget to make room in my day for "play time" with the ones I love the most.


If you enjoyed this post, become a friend either through the "Join this site" feature of through Google + and receive future updates. Also don't forget to share the post with your friends. If you haven't read the Chronicles of Mister Marmee, The Case of Jack the Nipper and The Case of the Wayward Fae are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What Makes an Author "Real"?

I have experienced some low blows in my life; you know the kind that leaves you reeling once it has been delivered......where you wonder what you have done to deserve such a whammy. I won't bore you with the details of the myriad pains I have experienced over the years because frankly, I prefer not to relive those inglorious moments. Punishing myself with their recollection does me no good except to remind me of the feelings of helplessness I felt during those moments when I wish the words I hold so dear had come more readily to my lips.

Rather than relive those times, I strive to move forward, leaving those events and the people who perpetuated them in the dust of my forward momentum. I always have the option of writing about such moments later of course; masking the villains of my past in some well-cloaked character where the outcome of the confrontation is somehow more glorious in my fantasy world than it felt at the time in my reality. But in the here and now, I must find ways to cope as a a a tender-hearted soul who has the capacity to be hurt by the thoughtless words of another.

The other day I experienced another one of those low blows but from a direction I never would have expected. I was urged by a woman a few months back (with great enthusiasm mind you) to contact a particular organization that works with children; an organization with whom she had strong ties. The woman was familiar with my novels and thought I would be a perfect candidate to participate in a program this organization hosted every year. It was called "Author Day." It was a day when authors were invited to come and talk to the children to share everything with them and their parents. The authors were able to share their dreams, their motivations, their bodies of work, their history....whatever they felt led to surrender of themselves. It was a day of exploration for all involved. It was a day to give of oneself, or so I imagined such a day would be.

I remember what I was like when I was a child. I loved to read. For me, books were a place where magic existed, in all its wonder and power. Books held more appeal to me than anything else; television, movies, the mall, video games could not entice me the way the pages of a book could. A book could take you anywhere in the universe, and I took advantage of that limitless transportation every chance I got. If I had ever been granted the opportunity to meet any of the authors that I loved as a child, I probably would have died from sheer delight. So to have the opportunity to go and speak to children who obvious were being brought up in an atmosphere of book-loving was a chance I couldn't turn down.

Now here is the caveat I must share before continuing with my tale. I am very shy, so it took me almost five months after I was given the name of the organization to gather up enough nerve to look the place up online. It took me another day to get the nerve to pick up the phone and call. But I did it. I have two novels on the market. I have people from all over the world who are reading my books. I had nothing to be ashamed of. At least I didn't think I did. I dialed the number and introduced myself to the woman who answered the phone. She was very nice but wasn't the coordinator. I was forwarded to the lady-in-charge's voice mail, and I left my message. I was on cloud nine. I had really done it. I had taken the risk, and I knew in my heart it would pay off. Then I got the callback and so began the building of my mortification.

The woman who called me back was thrilled I had called her. I was a local author. How fabulous! I had two novels. How great!

We have already scheduled the author for this year's event, but we would love to have you come for the day and meet the children.

My heart was bursting at the seams. I was so excited.

Do you know such and such an author?

Um, no but I was a fast learner. I was certain I could find their work and read it before the event.

Oh....I see.

I could feel things cooling off. Not every author in the world knows every other author. We are not all related.

Well, who is your publisher?

I gave her my answer. I was published through an indie publisher and I gave her their name.

Oh.....I see.

Question after question whittled away at her 'respect' of my work. At my accomplishments as an author. I could feel the disapproval settle into her voice as she gave me the final blow.

I don't mean to disappoint you but we generally only host nationally recognized authors who have won prestigious awards like the Caldecott award. You are welcome to come and see the authors speak and share with the children what your dreams are. We will send you information. If you don't hear from us though, it is just because things have been all booked for the year.

There was the raw, bare truth. I wouldn't be hearing from them because somehow, I didn't fit into their mold of what a "real" author was. I found myself wanting to explain. I found myself wanting to defend my work. All I did was thank her in a small voice and hang up, knowing I would never hear from her again; knowing she would never hear from me. The truth is, it wouldn't have mattered what I said to her. She had already made up her mind what I was worth without ever seeing what I had written. It would probably surprise her judgmental little heart to know that some of the most popular books today started as indie published books; books that she has either applauded or criticized but would undoubtedly recognize as "legitimate" works because they were picked up by one of the big 5 publishing houses. But that fact didn't make the authors more "real" than they were when they first wrote their books. It just meant they got more exposure and more attention once they were published through those avenues.

I am not saying that I will be one of those indie authors that gets picked up in such a way, but I will tell you this. It doesn't get more "real" than what I do every day for my craft. On the weekends, I get up at 5:30 to write. If I am lucky, I can get in around 5,000+ words over the two days before I go about the rest of the many tasks the weekend holds. There have been weekends where I have been graced with over 10,000 words, but I cannot ignore the other tasks that are on my list.

I have a fulltime job as a technical writer/tester/designer for a software company, so I don't have a lot of free time during the week to write. What little time I do have left during the weekday after chores and family time, I spend in promotional and PR tasks. Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Goodreads, Website updates. The works. I am a one woman show. I don't have a team. There is just me. You tell me I am not a real author, that the work I do isn't "real", and I will have a few choice words for you that aren't polite to say in any company, mixed or otherwise. I may not have one of the big 5 publishers as my banner to wave YET, but it doesn't mean I am not the genuine article, and it doesn't give anyone the right to be cruel or unkind to me. Finish two novels that are over 120,000 words a piece, polish them, edit them, and get them ready for market and perhaps then we can talk. Until then, hold your peace because all you are is an armchair critic who has no concept of what it takes to do what I do EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE!

Some day, I will be one of those big name writers. Why? Because I refuse to give up, and I refuse to stop writing. Eventually, the agencies and publishers will get tired of seeing my name come across their desk, and they will take the time to read that first chapter of my work, because trust me, that is all it will take. And when that day comes (and it will) the people like the woman who let me know I wasn't good enough to participate in her "Author Day" event will start calling me. I just hope when that day comes, I show more compassion, humility, and grace than they ever showed me.

So why the rant? The message is simple. It is so easy to pass judgment on others; to dismiss them without a thought or a care for how it might make that other person feel. It is easy to do when you are the one with all of the power and authority in the situation, but remember. The table can turn so quickly, and you can find yourself facing the same person you spurned, asking them to help you instead of the other way around. If you can show kindness even in the letdown, please do so. That simple act may just be your salvation one day when you need it the most.

Remember the ripples in the pond. Whatever you send forth may be the very thing that returns to you a hundred fold. Make sure it is a reward worth receiving.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to join the community by clicking 'Join this site' on the right or by following via Google+. Checkout H.L. Stephen's novels 'The Case of Jack the Nipper' and 'The Case of the Wayward Fae', available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mister Marmee Has Returned - The Case of the Wayward Fae Is Now Available

There are some moments in life that are worth celebrating. Marriage. The birth of a child. The big promotion. Getting that goiter removed. For me, I have tremendous cause for celebration because my second novel, The Case of the Wayward Fae ~ A Chronicle of Mister Marmee, was released on December 7, 2013, just in time for the Christmas holiday. I know, I know. We are two months past the release date, and I am only now getting around to posting about it on my blog. I never said I was the best PR person in the business or very good at marketing in general.

The truth of the matter is, it felt like the release day would never get here. Not the announcement part....the release part. The journey to bringing The Case of the Wayward Fae was a hard one. It was paved with sweat, as one would expect, but it was also paved with pieces of my shattered heart.

I suppose every novel can be described as a labor of love, but for this novel, it could not be more true. As most readers will discover when they reach the conclusion of this adventure, tucked within the 'Thank You' at the end of the book, is the soft, nuggety truth behind this story. The Case of the Wayward Fae might never have been completed. At least not for a long, long time. I know. It sounds a bit dramatic, but it is true.

My real-life Sir Happy inspiration for the dachshund detective in the Chronicles of Mister Marmee...passed away February 19, 2013 before I had completed the novel. I was roughly two thirds of the way through the manuscript when my world was shattered by his loss. His death was not a peaceful one, at least not peaceful for my heart, and I did not know if I would be able to finish the story that had begun so joyfully with him laying by my side. Every time I looked at my computer, the brittle pieces of heart that I had managed to gingerly pull back together fell apart once again. I could not write the words without feeling the emptiness on the bed beside me.

The voice of the story seemed to die with my boy as if he held in his tender paw the key to it all. There was silence in my head and in my heart. No words would come to me. There was an emptiness in me that defied expression. I wondered if I would ever hear the rich tones of Sir Happy Heart's and Mister Marmee's voices in my mind again; there distinct Bristish accents bantering back and forth. I wondered if my heart could bear to hear them. I often wondered if my heart could bear their crushing silence.

It took time, but in the aftermath of my loss, I found my way back to Victorian London. Slowly, the ending of the story took shape, and miraculously, I found my way to the last word of the final chapter. But it was months...MONTHS before I could bring myself to touch the novel for editing. My heart was too broken. Too shattered. There were too many eerie parallels between the story I had written and what had happened when I had lost my boy. The parallels were unintended and were written when my world was whole and full of happiness and the sounds of my real-life Sir Happy Heart. After he was gone, I found every excuse under the sun NOT to touch the manuscript again. I  even cleaned out my fridge. Who does that unless it is out of sheer desperation or under direct order from the Centers for Disease Control?

I found a lovely program called SmartEdit that enabled me to begin the process of editing my novel in a more clinical way. I lanced the adverbs and slashed the repetition. I boiled the clichés and the bad word usage right out of my novel without ever breaking a sweat or shedding a tear. It took the sting out of the emotional prose I had written and turned them into cold text that I could analyze without breaking my heart over and over again. It gave me time to heal. Then, when I was ready, I read my story.

This time I cried; not because my heart was broken from the loss of my boy but because I felt the triumph of seeing him once more gallivant across the page. The characteristics that made me love him in life were captured in all their charming glory. He was not lost to me. He was alive again in the pages of my book. Oh yes, I cut and pasted and bled upon the pages, "killing the little darlings" I had worked so hard to write over the two years of this book's creation. I would be lying if I said my words came out perfect the first time, but even in their imperfection, I could see him. My Sir Happy Heart. The little tenacious boy I love still. Though I miss him as much today as I did the moment he left me, I feel a comfort in knowing he is near me once again as I write.

In fact, one of the reasons why it has taken me so long to make this post is the fact the voices of Sir Happy Heart and Mister Marmee have been hounding me with a vengeance. The third installment of the Chronicles of Mister Marmee is well on its way. The Christmas holiday proved very productive and gave the story a boost I could only have dreamed of.

The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune is proving to be a fun adventure and every bit as unexpected as the first two novels. I cannot wait to see where the story will take me to next. The one thing I know for certain, above all other truths. No matter where the story leads, Sir Happy will be with me, walking by my side through each and every word. Wherever we end up, I know now we will journey there together, just as we always did.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to join the community by clicking 'Join this site' on the right or by following via Google+. Checkout H.L. Stephen's novels 'The Case of Jack the Nipper' and 'The Case of the Wayward Fae', available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.