- Your reader makes decisions, so you should be humble.
- Your reader is easily distracted and slow to act, so your writing should be concise, direct, and strategic.
- Your reader distrusts you, so your writing should be logical, error-free, and upbeat.
- Your reader is human, so you should share stories.
- Your reader wants you to be human, so you should show that you care.
MJ Pullen has a new romantic comedic novel out August 7th that combines two things I love — tennis and girlfriends.
Set against a fictional Atlanta enclave of Sugar Mills, Sugar Street takes you into the lives of four married Atlanta friends, who decide to take drastic steps to rekindle their marriages — hiring the hot local tennis pro who isn’t just good at backhands and serves to make their hubbies jealous. As you might expect, things don’t go as expected.
In the Q&A below, MJ shares her inspiration for Sugar Street, including the setting in tennis-obsessed suburban Atlanta, as well as her tips on how to stand out in this incredibly popular writing genre.
I highly recommend this novel, her fourth, which Kirkus describes as a “glitzy romp that features suburban wives making unconventional – and haphazardly disastrous – attempts to break out of the safe patterns of their lives.”
Q. What was the inspiration for Sugar Street?
MJ: Like many suburban moms—especially ones who are typically late for the bus—I’ve spent many hours of my life sitting in carpool. At my kids’ school, I noticed that one of the police officers directing traffic was, well… pretty easy on the eyes (he also happened to be the most efficient at keeping crazy carpool parents in line, so that helps!). I had a thought one day as he waved me into the carpool lane: as a parent, how embarrassing would it be to get arrested in your local town and have the safety officer from your kids’ school see you in jail? I pictured this awkward moment where the supercilious PTA mom is being led through the police station in handcuffs, and reminds the cop that she’s the one who bakes him cookies every year at the holidays. The whole idea of a crime ring in affluent suburbia grew from there. That seed of an idea later became the jail scene (with Maizy Henriksson and her cookies). The other three main characters and the super-hot tennis pro fell into place shortly thereafter!
Q. The setting of your book is Atlanta’s tennis scene — did you find it easy to make that your setting given how vibrant tennis is here?
MJ: You know, I didn’t know much about tennis when I started this novel: just that many of my friends and neighbors are really into it. (I’m more of a softball/Jazzercise girl myself). Tennis made a great backdrop for the story of four women desperate to rekindle the spark in their marriages… but the more I’ve learned about the Atlanta tennis scene, the more fascinated I’ve become. I now realize I could’ve included much more about tennis in this novel; there are whole books begging to be written about the tennis scene itself. It’s a world of its own!
Q. I really enjoyed the story and the vivid characters — women in mid-life crises who take a crazy risk to breathe passion back into their marriages. Which character in the book do you most identify with?
MJ: This is such a writer thing to say, but in some way or another, I see myself in every character I write. If I don’t relate to a character on some level, it’s hard for me to write genuinely about her motivations and behavior. If I had to choose, I guess Jess is the character I related to most while writing this novel – the book is slightly skewed toward her point of view, and while there are no direct parallels, her relationship dynamic with Tom is probably most similar to my own marriage.
Q. As a writer, how do you make these women so full-dimensional and “real?”
MJ: Honestly? I’m a people addict; I find all our flaws and foibles (as well as our capacity for goodness and redemption) endlessly fascinating. This may be why I became a psychotherapist, and it’s certainly one of the main reasons I write. While it’s rare for me to base a character on a real person, I do try to reflect the complexities I see in myself and real-life friends and family in my characters. That’s how I love my characters as a reader, and I’m not sure I could write any other way!
Q. What do you hope readers get out of this story?
MJ: First and foremost, I hope they enjoy it! There’s a very specific half-laugh, half-cringe experience I try to elicit with every book I write. I also hope readers will find at least one character or situation to which they can relate – whether they have a friend who’s always selling something like Delia, or they relate to Maizy’s desperation to find a place in the social circle. The need to belong doesn’t end when you graduate from high school or college, and “real life” can sometimes be just as isolating and frustrating for adults. I guess I’m trying to normalize that for myself and others.
Q. The genre you write for is a pretty crowded place – chick lit / romantic comedy. How do you stand out in this space? What advice would you give new writers seeking to make their mark in romantic comedy?
MJ: The market may be crowded in this genre, but I believe we need all the romantic comedies and funny, light fiction we can get right now. Whether it sells or not, I need to write it, because it gives me hope and serves a reminder of what’s worth fighting for: love, humanity, acceptance, friendship. So, I guess that’s my advice for writers in any genre: write the book you want to read, and readers will find you. You might be on your seventh revision of your fourth novel when they find you, but eventually they will! (Also, watch your posture. The struggle is real.)
About the Author
M.J. (Manda) Pullen is the author of playful women’s fiction and quirky romantic comedies, including the bestselling MARRIAGE PACT trilogy and the forthcoming SUGAR STREET series. She has also worked as a non-profit fundraiser, corporate trainer, psychotherapist and mom of two young boys. Each of these jobs has eroded her sanity and contributed to her writing equally.
Manda loves cheap wine, expensive beer, and coffee at any price. She lives in Roswell, Georgia, with her husband, two young boys and Zelda and Zora the Wonderpups. You can connect with Manda on her author page and blog, The Distracted Writer, or on Twitter (@MJPullen) and Facebook.
Today on The Writing Well I am delighted to introduce Carol Dunlop, a savvy marketer, master networker and author of UN-Market Your Business: 10 Ways for Savvy Entrepreneurs to Stand Out, Stop Struggling, and Start Profiting.
Carol and I both have book titles with a similar play on words. My book, Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide, was featured last March on the author podcast, Write Books that Sell Now, that Carol hosts with two other dynamic Atlanta book marketing pros, Anita Henderson and Candice Davis.
In the Q&A below, Carol shares some secrets that every entrepreneur can employ to get noticed and win new clients. I heartily recommend her book, which is available on Kindle Unlimited for free for the next five days only. Let us know what you think about her insights!
Q. What made you decide to write UN-Market Your Business: 10 Ways for Savvy Entrepreneurs to Stand Out, Stop Struggling, and Start Profiting?
Carol: The main reason I decided to write this book is that I wanted to kickstart my speaking career. I know it’s not an absolute requirement to have a book, but it puts me ahead of the other people who don’t have a book. Plus, having written a book gives me instant credibility and authority.
Q. The title of your book is a bit of a twist — You are saying that it’s better to “un-market” your business than market it in a traditional sense. What do you mean by that?
Carol: Yes indeed, UN-Marketing is how you take advantage of this new, exciting, and ever-changing digital economy to market your business successfully. It’s a way of using out-of-the-box, UN-thought-about, strategies that are simple and easy for you to make your own to turn friends, fans, and followers into paying clients.
Q. What are a few surprising takeaways in your book that may surprise business owners?
Carol: The overarching theme of the book is that marketing your business doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg and doesn’t have to be a big scary thing. In actuality, all the strategies in this book are low- or no-cost, but they do require some time, on the business-owner’s part to put into place. I made sure I broke down the strategies into simple steps and included the reasoning as to why you are doing each one, what you can expect to get out of it, along with the best way to implement. Plus, I have lots and lots of extras, examples, and resources to help you with each step.
Another takeaway is that you can use any or all the strategies authentically, meaning you can cater them to how you are, how you present your business, and how you want to be perceived. All the strategies are customizable so you can be true to who you really are and be successful doing it.
Q. What was the most challenging and most rewarding part of researching and writing this book?
Carol: The most challenging part wasn’t really the writing, it was after the writing; putting everything together. I did have an author coach, who helped me tremendously to get my thoughts and words across as I had envisioned, but putting the entire book together with the pictures, pull quotes, and how to do the things you don’t think about, like citing previous work, was quite challenging. As for research, the thing that helped me out the most was creating an outline first. It helped me to put my thoughts in order and in writing everything out. Once I created the outline, it was easy to write, because everything in the book was what I knew about or had previously done. The most rewarding part happened when I did research certain parts of the book and the research echoed what I had written or was about to write. It was kind of a “YEAH, you got this!” type of feeling.
Q. Many authors say that writing a book is one-third of the work; the rest is marketing it. How are you promoting your book?
Carol: My promotion strategy is based on involving my tribe and social media followers to help me. When I originally started thinking about writing the book, I wanted to get input from my peers, colleagues, and peeps to infuse into the content. I also wanted to show readers that I actually use the strategies that I talk about in the book, so they can see that these strategies really work. For instance, in Part 3, I went to HARO (which is the Strategy showcased in Chapter 12) and submitted a query to business leaders on what’s going to happen next in marketing in this new, digital economy. The responses are in Part 3, Chapter 15: What’s Next. I received the most awesome and intriguing responses. Not only is this great content, but I emailed all the contributors to let them know the book is complete and will be launching soon. This alerts them to the fact that other people will be seeing their comments and contact information and since people love to see themselves in print, will lead them to purchase the book and share it.
Q. Any promotion best practices you can share with other business leaders thinking about becoming authors?
Carol: Of course, I am going to utilize my blog and social media platforms, but I also created a podcast of the same name, UN-Market Your Business, where I share insights from the book and interview other business owners who exhibit UN-Marketing characteristics in their business. The thing is to get the concept out there, in front of people over and over again, in a way that “tickles the palette” and makes people think about their marketing strategies in a whole new way. That is UN-Marketing. When you are writing your book, think of a concept that you can make bigger than your book and infuse into the thoughts of others and you will have a success on your hands.
Q. What other books have you written and what makes this book different than what you’ve crafted before?
Carol: This is my second book, but my first solo book. In, my first book, Write Books That Sell Now, I was a co-author, but this time, it’s all me. It is very different to be a solo author instead of a co-author. In the first book, I didn’t do a lot, I submitted a couple blog posts, answered a couple questions, and wrote a few paragraphs. The editing and overall feel of the book was handled by someone else. But in this book, everything was me. Even though I had an author coach who helped me to stay succinct and relevant in my writing, because I tend to go off on tangents, it was still my writing. I made sure that throughout the book, my authentic voice, along with all my quirks, were showcased, even if that meant totally ignoring something my author coach, editor, or beta reader suggested.
About the Author
Carol Dunlop – The Savvy Entrepreneur’s Online WOW! Strategist
An energetic and personable networker, Carol J. Dunlop is among the elite in her field, her clients refer to her as an online marketing phenom, she is known as “The Online WOW! Strategist.” She is VP of Marketing and Communications at CSI Corporation, the company she founded more than twenty-three years ago with her husband Alvin. And is also currently serving as the VP of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships for ProWIN, a women’s business networking group in Atlanta. Carol also co-founded and formerly served as the marketing mastermind behind Write Books That Sell Now, an organization that helps aspiring authors to write, publish, and market their business-building book.
Carol currently speaks to business owners about how “UN-Market” their business and convert their website into their business hub. She also shows them how to get the conversation started, grow brand awareness, build trust, and ultimately convert their fans, friends, and followers into paying clients through the strategies she’s used in her book, UN-Market Your Business; 10 Ways for Entrepreneurs to Stand Out, Stop Struggling, and Start Profiting.
Fun facts about Carol:
- She is a former Bodybuilder, Fitness and CrossFit competitor
- She has two grown children and five grandchildren
- She and her husband have been married and partners in business for 23 years
How to Connect with Carol:
- Tune in to her weekly podcast, UN-Market Your Business, airing Thursdays at 1 p.m. EST. www.csicoporation.com/podcast
- Follow her on Twitter: @csicorporation
If you ask ghostwriting guru Claudia Suzanne, 8 in 10 people in America alone dream of one day writing a book.
But, a fraction of that number will have the fortitude and resources to make it a reality, and even fewer possess the writing skills to translate their vision into a compelling and commercially viable book. Suzanne has spent her career helping make those dreams come true.
“That has been my personal mission for decades now – to raise the literacy bar of the industry one author at a time,” says Suzanne.
Suzanne has poured all she has learned over three decades as a successful ghostwriter into the first professional ghostwriting designation program offered in the world. The 10-month program—taught virtually through California State University, Long Beach’s College of Continuing and Professional Education—has attracted students from around the world.
She also birthed a new venture, Wambtac Ghostwriters, with some of her best graduates to give authors risk-free ghostwriting services. Her innovative model allows an author client to have two ghostwriters and a team of experts for the price of one. The ghostwriter receives support from Suzanne and other mentors, allowing them to grow their skills throughout the project and ensure a successful outcome and a delighted client.
This January Suzanne will release the 5th edition of her signature book, This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Industry from Concept through Sales, which has been used in colleges, translated into Chinese, and carried in major libraries worldwide.
Suzanne, who tackles the craft of deconstructing books in the same way her father approached engineering problems, shares her unique perspective on the craft of ghostwriting, the book industry, and what writers thinking about moving into this field need to know.
Q. How is ghostwriting different than other writing disciplines?
Suzanne: It’s very different. When you are writing under your own name and you’re writing your own material, even if you are writing for a client, it’s very personal and very ego-involved. It’s all about you doing your best job to get the job done in your vision. You are conforming to the perimeters, but it’s still your vision.
When you ghostwrite, that goes out the window. Ghostwriting is all about the author’s vision—and you are not the author. You’re merely the person who makes the author’s vision work.
In order to write someone else’s vision, you first have to deconstruct what they created because oftentimes, what a person expresses verbally is generic and general. So step one is to figure out the gold of their material so you, the ghost, can craft something the author will be proud of.
Deconstruction requires an entirely different set of skills than most writers learn in school, or even over the course of their careers. It’s not the same thing as going to an English class and saying, “Let’s figure out what the author is trying to say.”
The next step is to uncover the problems that might keep the book from being successful and remedy those issues without overtly changing what the author’s vision. And, of course, we have to do it all in the author’s voice, tone, and flavor.
When we’re done, we get paid, and the author is very, it’s a win-win all around.
Q. How well understood is ghostwriting as a specialized writing craft?
Suzanne: A lot of people hanging out their “ghostwriter” shingles ghostwriter really don’t understand the depth of the process. They figure if they know how to write and have been successful in their own writing career, that’s all it really takes. They rely on their writer’s methodology because they don’t know the difference between it and the ghostwriter’s methodology.
I’ve dealt with authors who say the final book of their book doesn’t sound like them, or that the writer changed their vision/voice/style. They feel they’ve been cheated somehow, and are confused because they know the person they hired it a good writer—possibly even a bestselling author themselves!
Part of our mission is to educate not only the public, but the writing community-at-large about the differences between writing and ghostwriting. What we old-timers used to do instinctively doesn’t necessarily play anymore. Too many aspiring authors need help.
Q. Obviously, not every writer is cut out for this. What qualities does it take to be a successful ghostwriter?
Suzanne: Oh, I have a whole long list about that, and it starts with having a strong enough ego to not have to put your name on someone else’s book. You need to be a good writer and editor, of course, but even more, you need to be open to working with writing that may not be up to your personal standards.
It’s important that you feeling a calling to write, but it’s equally important that you not be a prolific author. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But writers who have a lot to say and know exactly how they want to say it often have trouble putting someone else’s vision above their own.
Q. What common mistakes do new ghostwriters make?
Suzanne: They don’t know how to price themselves; they don’t know how to close the deal; they don’t know how to make the client happy; they don’t know how to maintain the author’s vision, perspective and intent. They only know how to write in the client’s voice, so they make the book over in their own image.
In fact, one of my students was a New York Times’ bestselling novelist who had won many literary awards. People kept asking her to write books for them and she was writing them and getting them published, but the people were never happy. The referrals just dried up. We got into deconstruction, where we figure figuring out what the author’s intent is and how to make the manuscript work without impacting its fundamental weave, and she called me. She said, “I know what I’m doing wrong! I keep writing my clients’ books as if they were my own!”
That, in a nutshell, is the most common mistake writers make.
Q. I’ve read that you often describe ghostwriting as ‘recession proof.’ What do you mean by that?
Suzanne: We have about 300 million people in the United States, according to the latest Census data. According to a publisher in the Midwest, about 81% of the American public wants to write a book or feels they have a book in them. That’s approximately 200 million Americans. Let’s say 10% of those 200 million are really serious about it and looking for help. And then let’s say 10% of them can actually afford legitimate ghostwriting fees, which start around $35,000. That’s 10% of 20 million, or two million. So, two million people every single year in America alone not only want to write a book, but also are serious about writing a book and have the wherewithal to hire a ghostwriter.
Let’s also say, for the sake of argument, that there are maybe 200 legitimate, competent ghostwriters out there, and that each one can do three projects a year. That means the ghostwriter is making at least $100,000 per year from 600 people who are being helped. That leaves 2,999,400 people who aren’t getting helped every year.
It’s a huge market. And, that’s just in America—and it’s not counting the people outside the United States or those who want to be coached through writing the book themselves. There is a lot of work out there. It’s all the same methodology.
Q. Your professional designation program at California State Long Beach has evolved quite a bit. Can you describe how you have grown and evolved the program?
Suzanne: It started as a 7 week class, and my students left with their eyes rolling in the back of their heads. I expanded it into 15-week course of study, which grew to two-semesters once we went into CSULB. Now we have a solid 10-month professional designation program. Some students say it’s more intense than what they had to do to earn their master’s degree.
But that’s because people think, “Hey, I’ve got an MFA, or an English degree, or a PhD in English Lit and have been writing for years. I I can take this and expand my knowledge a little bit.” It doesn’t work that way. There isn’t much in this course that building on what we all learned in high school and college. In fact, people have to unlearn some stuff so they can absorb all these new techniques nobody else ever introduced them to. So, like all new life skills, first it’s a challenge, then it becomes practiced, and finally it turns into second nature.
We use at least two teaching assistants at all times because the class is so dense and demanding, and we all make ourselves available to our students constantly. There are no set office hours. You can email or call at any time, and we will help you figure it out. Our sole purpose in doing this program is to launch new careers.
Q. You also launched a new company to serve the ghostwriting market.
Suzanne: Yes, Wambtac Ghostwriters, which is staffed exclusively with certified ghostwriters. It’s a win-win: the client gets a team of ghostwriters and support people for the price of one, and the certified ghost gets support and an ear to bounce off of throughout the project. We have analysts to help make sure everything is on course, and we have in-house editors and proofreaders. We also are affiliated with a self-publishing service that will walk the client through the publishing process one step at a time.
We have no agenda as far as publishing is concerned. If the author wants to go to a self-publishing outfit, fine. If they want to go to a traditional publisher, we will help them put together those submission materials and find an agent to get there. Everything is a project-by-project situation because every book and every author is different.
Q. You have a new edition of This Business of Books coming out in January. What kind of new content will people find?
Suzanne: It’s a complete overview of today’s book industry from concept to sales. The opening chapter discusses how the book industry is a risk-management business, and how to mitigate that risk is woven throughout the rest of the text.
This is the fifth edition of the title, and the first time I’ve gone so deeply into the ins-and-outs of the industry. It covers close to everything—I’m sure I left something out!—including literary scouts; what authors need to be aware as they try to market their book; the real differences between a first and second draft; and the difference between market and audience. It delves into that a great deal. It also explains how to figure out what a book’s market is and how to extrapolate the audience from that. And it talks about the book-industry supply chain in much bigger depth than previous editions.
Q. Can you share your top ghostwriting best practices?
Suzanne: Here are my five rules of ghostwriting –
- Rule #1: Make the client happy.
- Rule #2: Get paid. Ghostwriters don’t work on spec. This is a profession.
- Rule #3: It’s not my book. That’s very, very important. If a ghostwriter can’t immerse themselves in that concept, they probably won’t make the client happy.
- Rule #4: Never quote before your read. Look at the manuscript first, or explore the unwritten concept as deeply as possible. Analyze. Extrapolate. Project.
- Rule #5: Always analyze for the positive – look for the really great stuff in the manuscript first, because it needs to be sacrosanct. Anybody can find the problems. Ghostwriters know how to deconstruct to find the gold.
About Claudia Suzanne
Claudia Suzanne, a former rock ‘n roll drummer, sold her first book, For Musicians Only, to Watson-Guptil (Billboard Books) in 1988 and promptly embarked on a career as a ghostwriter. Today, she has ghosted over 154 titles including tracked bestsellers, hi-volume-sales titles, peer-reviewed works, award-winning novels, and memoirs optioned for film. Spearheading the movement to elevate and advance ghostwriting, she penned the “seminal textbook” on the subject, teaches the only ghostwriter-training program in the world, and founded Wambtac Ghostwriters, a collaborative ghostwriting service. Wambtac also offers a referral program – anyone who introduces a potential author client and it results in a ghostwriting book contract earns 2% of the manuscript contract.
To learn more about Suzanne and her company, visit http://wambtac.com/. Read more about the Ghostwriting Professional Designation Program at California State University – Long Beach.
There’s something captivating about space exploration that ignites the imagination. I felt it as a child watching Star Trek, and it’s evident in the public interest in the ISS, NASA, and in space visionaries like Richard Branson and Elon Musk.
That’s why I am so excited to feature Sue Ganz-Schmitt, a talented children’s book author, mother and philanthropist. Sue has also served as a NASA Social correspondent, an experience that I enjoyed for the first time last April at the SpaceX launch to the ISS. She has taken insights from her behind-the-scenes tour of NASA and the launch pad and applied them to her children’s books.
Her third book, Planet Kindergarten, out this past August, earned a Kirkus starred review: “A genius way to ease kids into the new adventure that is kindergarten.” The Mommy Reads blog included this positive plug from a young reader:
“T is in love with Planet Kindergarten by Sue Ganz-Schmitt and Shane Prigmore. We have read it 38 times…..so far. It has been our bedtime story night after night. This book is ABSOLUTELY perfect for my guy and I feel like maybe, just maybe, it was written just for him. I love the rich vocabulary and comparison between outer space and the classroom. Seriously-one of our best reads this summer!”
Below, Sue shares her unique background and how she has applied her love of the stars to touch children’s imaginations, and offers tips on how to connect with readers and with fellow writers.
Q. You have such an interesting background, Sue, with your interests in helping children all over the world. You also love space. How were you able to combine these passions as a book author?
Sue: My first book, Even Superhereos Get Diabetes, was inspired by a play-friend of my then two-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I wanted to reach out and help the family facing the shock of diagnosis. I tried to find an empowering picture book they could read to him. When I couldn’t find what I was looking for I decided to write my own book.
I watched the family become like superheroes in a blink – waking up several times a night to blood test their toddler, counting every bite of carbs he ate, injecting him several times a day. Exhausted and worried, none of them complained – they just rose to the occasion with grace and strength. I wanted to help them feel supported with this new unknown looming over them, and I wanted other kids to understand the medical challenge that their friends with diabetes face.
As a kindergartener, I watched several rocket launches that culminated in the Apollo 11 moon landing. I was very inspired by NASA and had a fascination with space. Almost subconsciously, a NASA reference found its way into this story where the hero discovers that his doctor has diabetes-related superpowers and a secret lair that looks like NASA’s mission control.
Q. What inspired your Planet Kindergarten book series?
Sue: In my third book, Planet Kindergarten, I watched the kids from my daughter’s pre-school make the transition to kindergarten. One of her best friends was having a really rough go of it and had to act as brave as an astronaut to get through it – but I could see lots of days he just wanted to abort this mission to kindergarten. A storyline came together and I wrote a book that I hoped would both inspire kids to be interested in space while easing their fears about their school journey.
Q. How did you incorporate real-life science and facts about space to make it engaging to such a young audience?
Sue: I cut my teeth on space-themed family TV shows like “Lost In Space” and “The Jetsons.” I visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center while writing Planet Kindergarten and picked up some books on the Gemini/Apollo programs. I poured through them, as well as lots of space fact books from Barnes and Noble. One day I was online and found an article about how our earth is encircled by space trash (human created space debris). I was so disturbed that not only are we polluting our own planet – but the orbit around our planet. I had to include a nod to containing our trash in the first Planet Kindergarten book.
I love watching space-themed movies. For my just released book, Planet Kindergarten: 100 Days in Orbit, you may pick up on some influence from the movie “Gravity” (spacewalk scene). And the cover/last page image is modeled after a key scene in the movie, “The Right Stuff. ”
Q.What was the most challenging aspect of becoming a children’s author? The most rewarding aspect?
Sue: Great question, Anne. I think the most difficult part in pursuing a creative dream like becoming an author is perseverance. There were many obstacles and self-doubts that I had to face. I nearly gave up being a writer just two weeks before Planet Kindergarten went into a bidding war.
Being in a creative field, you are required to get feedback/critiques to make your work the best it can possibly be and that can cause you to question your abilities. Also the road to get a publishing deal is fraught with rejection. Even the best known authors have faced this (yes, you J.K. Rowling!).
As a sensitive introvert type – this has challenged me to grow. I have learned not to take rejection personally, but to get back to work each time to learn where my manuscript fell short, or to accept when the market isn’t timed right for my story. I have learned when to let go and move ahead on a new project. I often remind myself of the NASA themed line from Planet Kindergarten, “Failure is not an option!”
A reward for perseverance is when you hear from parents about how your book has helped their child. I have heard from parents with food allergies how The Princess and the Peanut helped their child not to feel alone; I heard from one parent who shared that their child decided to become a doctor to help other kids with diabetes, after reading Even Superheroes Get Diabetes. And from lots of parents how Planet Kindergarten helped calm their children’s nerves over their first days of school.
Another rewarding part of this journey has been getting to go to NASA rocket launches and NASA Social events, behind the scenes tours at JPL, space lectures at CalTech, and spending time with the great folks at the Planetary Society.
Q. What one tip would you offer authors who want to reach a young audience, from pre-school to elementary ages?
Sue: If they haven’t already, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org). I learned much of what I know about the craft of writing for children and the business side of publishing and promoting your work from them. They are an incredible resource for all levels of writers from those who are thinking of writing to those who have published numerous books. A writing teacher once told everyone in our class to join, so I did. It was the best career move I have ever made!
Q. How important is social media to building an author platform? How can parents find you?
Sue: Authors often spend their workday in solitary – we need ways to connect with our audience and others. Social media keeps us in the face of the public. And while you shouldn’t over-promote your book on social media, people will build an impression of you and hopefully remember you when they see your book in the stores or featured online.
Don’t try to be everywhere, and if you aren’t keen on social media, just find the platform that you are most comfortable with and show up there often. I tweet throughout the day. I love Twitter as a newsfeed to learn more about science, technology, and space and to share that with my followers. I also love using it to reach out and connect with space fans and other authors so we can support each other. And – I met you there! So lots to gain from it.
Q. What is next for you in terms of writing?
Sue: I just won an award for my new manuscript Space Cow. So stay tuned for an adventure with a brave bovine heading to Mars! I am also making a plan toward getting my Master’s Degree in Fine Arts (Writing for Young People).
About the Author
Sue Ganz-Schmitt is a children’s book author, mother, musical theater producer, and philanthropist. Sue is passionate about helping children and families. She is co-founder of an AIDS orphanage in Haiti, has traveled to China to help medically-challenged orphans and set up a birthing clinic in rural India. She has performed on Broadway, run a marathon, and pursues other improbable challenges – as often as she can. Sue has authored four picture books found here: http://www.sueganzschmitt.com/. She has served as a NASA Social correspondent and as a volunteer for the Planetary Society. You can often find her with eyes to the stars. She tweets at @planetkbooks and @royallyallergic or connect with her on Facebook under key words: royallyallergic and planetkindergarten.
Today, The Writing Well talks with Atlanta mystery-thriller writer Lee Gimenez on his techniques for character development tied to the release of his twelfth novel, The Media Murders.
The story opens with a prominent New York Times reporter dying under suspicious circumstances right before breaking an explosive story. Then a well-known TV reporter commits suicide. Suspecting foul play, the FBI’s John Ryan and Erin Welch investigate. As they probe the mysterious deaths, they uncover a shocking truth: Reporters are being murdered to suppress the news. More shocking is who they suspect is responsible for the killings.
As a writer who regularly reports on technology trends, I found the premise compelling. And, having read earlier books by Lee, featuring Ryan and Welch, I knew I would be in for a treat. Lee has a knack for creating believable characters and suspenseful storylines. The Media Murders didn’t disappoint on both counts. Below, Lee shares his process for creating well-rounded, imperfect heroes and antiheroes who readers can identify with – a component that any good story must have.
Q. Your newest thriller, The Media Murders, takes readers into the world of ethics and journalism, and the growing corruption of the field by outside interests, in this case, political forces. How true-to-life is this trend, and how did it inform your writing?
Lee: Like all of my previous eleven novels, The Media Murders, is primarily an action/mystery thriller. It’s ideal for someone who enjoys a past-paced, plot-driven novel, witty and engaging characters, and a strong sense of mystery and suspense. But it’s also more than that, as it tackles a serious issue that faces society today. As you mentioned, the plot revolves around the news media and journalism, and the key element is the murder of several reporters. Although the murder aspect of the reporters is fictional in the U.S. (at least as far as I could discover), it has happened in Europe and Russia in order to suppress the news.
The background of The Media Murders is based on research I did prior to writing the book. From this research I learned that the news industry in the U.S. has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. The news industry now reports news that is intended to not offend advertisers or government institutions. This trend has accelerated to the point that much news ‘reporting’ now is actually editorials from one side of the political spectrum or another. The ‘free press’ and the First Amendment to the Constitution are under assault in the U.S., something much of the public doesn’t seem to be aware of. I hope that by talking about this topic in my book, more people will become aware of this alarming trend.
Q. The Media Murders features several favorite characters, including Erin Welch, J.T. Ryan and Rachel West. In fact, you actually grace this book cover with a male character, J.T. Ryan, a first for you. Your characters are always well-defined and multi-dimensional. How do you create memorable characters that people can identify with and want to root for?
Lee: I’ve found several effective methods of creating memorable characters. One such method is to realize that characters cannot be perfect. This is especially true in your main characters, both the protagonists and the antagonists. For example, your protagonist cannot just have good qualities. He or she has to have flaws, either physical or emotional, and better yet, a little bit of each. Remember that perfect people don’t exist. We all have flaws. In order to make your hero/heroine believable, you have to include things about the person that are not necessarily positive. For example, one of the main characters in The Media Murders is John (J.T.) Ryan, who works for the FBI. He is one of the heroes in the book, and he has many good qualities in his personality. But he’s also impulsive and hot-headed at times, which puts him and the people around him in some dangerous situations.
Another way to create multi-dimensional characters is to give them an engaging backstory and to include humor and wit in the dialogue. My novels all have serious, life-and-death action thriller plots, but I always try to lighten the mood by bringing in humorous and witty dialogue. It makes the novel more readable, entertaining and believable.
Characters also have to have conflict in their lives, whether it relates to their love life, their family, their jobs, etc. Without conflict there’s no tension, and you have a boring novel. I try to include tension, suspense, and mystery, on every page.
Q. How much effort do you put into creating equally interesting villains? What kind of balance do writers need to strike when it comes to crafting characters on both sides of the good-bad spectrum?
Lee: Just as important as your main good guys/gals, the villains are, I’ve found, equally important. I don’t want to give away the plot of The Media Murders, so I won’t discuss the villains in this book, except to say they are extremely dangerous and deadly. So I’ll use one of my previous thrillers, The Washington Ultimatum, to illustrate. The main villain in this book, Angel Stone (she’s the beautiful woman featured on the book’s cover) is the world’s deadliest terrorist. The key to making this book successful was portraying her as evil as you would expect, but also to show that she had a human side that at times made her compassionate. Another good example of how this can be successfully done is shown in the Godfather movies, where the mobsters were killers, but they were also family men that went to church, and occasionally did good deeds.
Q. Engaging the audience through social media channels like Twitter is important for any author. How have you done this using your characters? What has been the feedback?
Lee: I find that engaging your reader audience is very important to the success of your book. I currently have over 50,000 followers on Twitter, and I’ve found this social media site a good way to get my message out and engage readers of my books. I’m also on Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and Pinterest. The key to social media, I found, is to realize that it’s a great way to have a conversation with your readers. And what makes social media unique is that you can have a conversation with people not just in this country, but also with people around the world.
Q. What is coming up next for you in terms of book projects? Do you plan to continue with some of the character themes you introduced in The Media Murders? Will there be more interaction between J.T. and Rachel, for example?
Lee: I really enjoy writing about the main characters I’ve created in the last several novels. They include the FBI’s John (J.T.) Ryan and Erin Welch, and my other series character, Rachel West, who is a CIA operative. Four of my novels, including The Media Murders, Skyflash, Killing West, and The Washington Ultimatum, are based on these characters. In my next novel I plan on including them as well. I’m currently working on the main plot for my next book, which I estimate would be published in the later part of 2017. Stay tuned for more details!
About the Author
Lee Gimenez is the award-winning author of 12 novels, including his highly-acclaimed J.T. Ryan series. His latest thriller is THE MEDIA MURDERS. Several of his books were Featured Novels of the International Thriller Writers Association, among them SKYFLASH, KILLING WEST, and THE WASHINGTON ULTIMATUM. Lee was nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year Award and was a Finalist in the prestigious Terry Kay Prize for Fiction.
Lee’s books are available at Amazon and many other bookstores in the U.S. and Internationally. For more information, please visit his website at: www.LeeGimenez.com. Lee lives with his wife in the Atlanta, Georgia area.
This month marks the 50-year anniversary of the classic Star Trek series. The story of the starship Enterprise, first envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, and its five-year mission to “explore new life and new civilizations” has endured for five decades – spurring numerous TV series, nine movies (and counting), and a throng of Trek conventions. It’s also inspired a new generation of people to pursue the stars as scientists, astronauts and engineers.
As a writer born in the year of the Apollo landing, I have pursued my own passion for space, covering technology and space trends for the satellite industry. In April, I watched from Cape Canaveral as a SpaceX Dragon rocketed into orbit on its mission to resupply the ISS. Within minutes SpaceX successfully landed the first phase on a drone ship.
Organizing a Birthday Worthy of a Vulcan
Fortunately for me, I married a Trekkie who had the good fortune to turn 50 recently. I marked my husband’s special day around our beloved series, complete with a “Live Long and Prosper” birthday cake, Spock ears for the guest of honor and party guests who got into the spirit by wearing T-shirts and even costumes in homage to the show.
It was so fun, replacing my spouse over the face of Kirk in the famous Spock death scene in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” when he utters the famous words, “I have been and always shall be your friend.”
I pulled together a Captain’s log for everyone to sign, and handed out “irradiated tribbles” as party favors for the youngest celebrants.
Meeting Captain Kirk
The next weekend was Dragon*Con, the world’s largest fantasy/SF convention, held annually in
Atlanta, and whose guest of honor the last day was none other than Captain Kirk himself – William Shatner. My sister and I attended his standing-room-only talk, where he shared some of his recent activities, including working on “The Truth Is In the Stars,” a feature documentary currently in production expected to be out by the end of 2016. The program poses the question of whether our society has the capacity to live up to Star Trek’s optimistic, inclusive vision for humanity’s future.
Shatner examines the impact of Star Trek on popular culture, human innovation, discovery and creativity through one-on-one interviews with famous innovators, celebrities and politicians. He told Dragon*Con attendees about his conversation with Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, who also is a big Star Trek fan. A sufferer of ALS, Dr. Hawking has no muscle control, so talks using a small sensor activated by a muscle in his cheek. He uses this sensor to ‘type’ characters and numbers on his keyboard.
Shatner recalled how when Hawking asked him to share his favorite episode of Star Trek, his first reaction was to admit that he hardly remembers individual shows, but then he thought more and realized that it was “the ones that expressed those brilliant ideas that tackled social issues like the stupidity of racial hatreds.” Shatner pointed to the episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” when two aliens from the same planet are differentiated due to one being black on the left side and white on the right and the other being the opposite.
“These stories appeal to our senses – these are the most powerful because they are based on something human,” he says,
Shatner then asked Hawking to share his favorite episode, to which he responded not too surprisingly, “Anything to do with black holes.”
Interestingly, Hawking is the only person to ever play himself on Star Trek. In the Star Trek: TNG episode, “Descent,” Data, Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking are playing poker.
Shatner demonstrated his humor and seemed to really enjoy his interplay with the fans during the Q&A session. When asked if Kirk had ended up with one woman in Star Trek, whom would she be, he responded, “Given Captain Kirk’s proclivities he would have liked to have ended up with all of them.”
“He was my best friend,” he said, recalling how a heartfelt friendship developed and grew when the two actors’ paths continued to cross even after Star Trek was cancelled but then gained new life in syndication, which led to films and convention appearances. Shatner said he wrote the memoir, Leonard, in honor of their 50-year friendship, soon after Nimoy’s death in February 2015, to get as many memories down as he could.
Watching Spock Documentary
My husband and I capped off our month-long Trek lovefest by heading to the screening of “For the Love of Spock,” a documentary and moving tribute to Nimoy written and directed by his son, Adam, which he funded through Kickstarter.
The screening, at the Plaza Theatre, Atlanta’s landmark and the city’s longest continuously operating movie theatre, was the perfect backdrop given its vintage feel. The documentary shed light on Nimoy the man, including his work ethic and family struggles.
I found the interviews with the elder Nimoy toward the end of his life especially moving as well as the many tributes from the original show and present-day cast of Star Trek, including filmmaker JJ Abrams. Walter Koenig, who played Chekov, recalled how Nimoy stepped in when Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei were not cast in the 1973 animated Star Trek series. Noting that the spirit of Star Trek was embracing diversity, and that the very cast members who most signify that diversity were being excluded, Nimoy refused to participate unless they were included.
There were many other behind-the-scenes tidbits revealed during the film, including the origin of the Vulcan greeting, which Nimoy devised from a letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
I knew how hard Nimoy worked throughout his career, how seriously he took his craft, and the long hours spent on set and doing appearances. Nimoy was the only actor kept when NBC rejected the original pilot, “The Cage,” as “too intellectual.” NBC was interested enough in the concept to give Roddenberry the go-ahead to try again with a new cast that included Shatner as captain in place of Jeffrey Hunter.
During the documentary viewers see an excerpt of Nimoy laughing as he read the original Variety review of the show, which dubbed “Star Trek” a “dreary mess of confusion” and called Shatner’s performance “wooden” – hardly the description people use to describe Captain Kirk. Overall, this documentary is definitely worth a viewing for those who loved the series and the character of Spock.
As for me, after catching up on some of my favorite episodes on the Star Trek marathon shown on the BBC America channel, I have resumed my normal routine with many fond Trek memories.
Thanks, Roddenberry, for your brilliant storytelling vision. It’s been quite a voyage!
Two Amazon indie authors, Angela J. Conrad and Kathy Hesser Skrzypczak, have never met face to face. That hasn’t stopped them from leveraging their mutual passion for storytelling to co-write Vodka & Vice, a romantic comedy book series set in New York City. The initial story takes readers into the lives of NYC couple, Naomi Swanson and Bradley Dobrov, as they go from happy lovebirds to heartbroken ex-couple against the backdrop of hidden speakeasies, luxury high rises, Russian dance parties and winter blizzards in the Big Apple. As a cast of colorful characters gets in the way of them getting back together, the two soon realize that their break-up is no accident. I found the story a fun, easy read, with characters and situations that were laugh-out-loud entertaining.
I belong to the same Facebook writing group as these two wordsmith collaborators, and am delighted to talk to them about writing as a team and what it takes to be part of a creative duo in today’s ever-changing independent publishing world.
Q. How did your newest series, Vodka & Vice, come about?
Angie: I’d been on Facebook a few years, to be connected to family and friends. I wasn’t promoting my books on blogs or author pages. My illustrator suggested I join a writing group, so in early 2016 I joined Write Life. I’d started a story in the group, with each writer adding a paragraph. It was hilarious, witty, and showed me what other author’s styles blended with mine. In a few months I’d made numerous friends, started three of my own groups, and met Kathy. I was finishing Body Double, Million Dollar Legs, and Kathy read it, we talked, I sent her an idea I had for my next series, and somehow we just decided to write a book together. It was a mixture of perfect timing, her NYC knowledge for the story’s location, and complementary styles.
Q. What has been most surprising aspect of collaborating with another writer on a book?
Angie: How wonderfully easy it was. I’m in northwest Arkansas and Kathy’s outside NYC. We did everything through email, Dropbox, and inside our co-author Facebook group.
Kathy: For me, it was the way it sharpened my writing. Once I found Bradley’s voice, the story developed so naturally, it was almost as though it were writing itself.
Q. What was the process like? How did you two divide up writing responsibilities? What about book promotion?
Angie: I had the first chapter idea already written. In my last ten books, I’ve written in several characters’ POV, bringing the reader inside each character’s head. So in this one, I started as Naomi, sent it to Kathy and she became Bradley. We used each other’s strengths. I’d already published 22 books/boxed sets on Amazon. I knew their formatting, rules, could design the front/back pages, and had an illustrator and a cover designer already in play. Kathy was a professional copywriter and worked on ads in NYC. She writes cleaner, and is a strong editor. Kathy knows the location; she also took the pictures for the interior of the book.
I write fulltime — usually 12 to 14 hours a day. Kathy and I are both character-driven writers. We don’t do a plot and know the ending in advance. We become the characters and they tell the story. It flowed so well, we turned Naomi & Bradley’s story into the series Vodka & Vice and wrote four cliffhangers.
Kathy: I would have never had the courage to publish on Amazon without Angie’s expertise. Every step of the way, she had advice and methods she had used before that led to her previously successful books. Originally, we had planned on releasing the first book in around five months, but the chapters flowed so easily, we were able to finish the entire four volumes in a little less than that.
Q. I felt that you both were very much “in tune” from a voice perspective. I couldn’t tell that two different people wrote this book. Did one of you gravitate to the voice of one of the characters more than another?
Angie: Thanks, several readers remarked on that and it’s wonderful that the story flows and there are no breaks or different styles to interfere with the story. For both of us, it’s all about the story. I think Kathy had the harder job being a cocky, gorgeous Russian male. She did it superbly.
Kathy: Ha! I completely disagree. Angie had it harder because her character was a strong and passionate woman. She actually had to delve into the complexities of female thought and emotion. And she did it beautifully. All I had to do was be a guy, which is as easy as I’ve always suspected it is.
Q. What I liked about Naomi & Bradley besides the story line and sexual chemistry, is the lively dialogue and pacing of this story. Any real-life people that you based these characters on? If you got an option for the story to be adapted to film, who would you envision playing Naomi and who would play Bradley?
Angie: Not for me. All my characters develop inside my head before I actually start typing. I give them dimensions, a past, a personality, maybe even an elevator phobia, I want them to be real people. We used the same models for our four covers, and we studied hundreds of other photos picking those four. Their faces are so ingrained inside me that I guess I’d hope they could act, because to me, they are the real Naomi & Bradley.
Kathy: Great question! Angie wrote the first chapter and sent it to me, so that’s when I met them both, already formed. Some of the other characters who introduced themselves to me during the writing process do have elements of people I’ve known, but not one of them is a straight up homage.
Q. What did you learn about yourselves from this experience? Would you do it again?
Angie: As an author, my main focus is to give the reader what they want, and we asked at the end of the book, if they would enjoy more of Naomi & Bradley. If they want more, Kathy and I agreed to continue. We already have ideas for the secondary characters.
Kathy: I learned that I don’t have to sit and labor over each and every word. I was writing “serious” stuff that felt laborious. Writing with Angie felt more spontaneous. Also, when you know someone you respect is waiting on your chapter so she can move on to hers, it really lights a fire under your desk chair. No procrastinating!
Q. Any advice for other writers who might want to team up on a novel? Is it best to establish yourself on your own first before collaborating with another writer, or does it matter?
Angie: I don’t think it matters, but it doesn’t hurt to have a following first, know Amazon’s twists and turns. Join a writing group, make friends with other authors, write a short story together, and see how you mesh.
Kathy: I agree. I knew from writing our improvisational stories that Angie and I would work well together. I had a little trepidation at first because I’ve never thought of writing with another person. When I worked in advertising, occasionally my art director would come up with the headline or I would create the visual, but I wrote all my copy alone. I think you have to have respect for your partner’s opinions and writing style, which we certainly do.
Q. As of this writing, have you two met in person? Any plans to?
Angie: We’ve never met in person, and have no plans to right now. We are far apart in geography, but in spirit we are joined. We’ve talked on the phone and daily in our group. We speak through our characters and a funny thing, when I’m Naomi and Bradley is with another woman, I actually found myself getting angry, even jealous. It was super to be so into a story.
Kathy: Although I would be delighted to meet Angie in person, I don’t feel I need to in order to continue our partnership. We already know each other’s strengths very well and of course the writing speaks for itself. She makes me a better writer.
Q. What’s next for you two either individually or as a writing team?
Angie: If we don’t continue with the series, we can always begin another one after a short break. All options are open. We’re also both working on other books. I’m usually working on two at once, overlapping. As I waited for Kathy’s chapter, I’d work on my next book, Gillian, Go Away. Oh, and book 4, Bradley & Naomi …What’s True will be released in early July.
Kathy: I have another completed novel and I’m in the process of querying publishers right now. So much ‘hurry up and wait’ that it was wonderful to be able to create and produce work in the interim. I had started a third novel just before meeting Angie. It’s a paranormal novel about all the ghosts trapped in a single building in Gettysburg, PA, and their relationships to each other and to the physical world around them, titled “The Corporeals.” I’m also working on a script for an animated film. Of course, all this will come after I put “Bradley & Naomi…What’s True” to bed.
Check out the first three books in Vodka & Vice at these links:
About the Authors
Angela J. Conrad
Angie writes fiction full-time, creating characters “who live colorful lives, people who often need redemption, and one more chance while facing pivotal moments in their lives.” She has published 18 books, four novellas, and boxed sets, and over 125 short stories on Amazon, internet sites, and news magazines. Her books have been downloaded in thirteen countries totaling over 9.8 million pages in the last eighteen months.
She considers full-time fiction writing another great adventure. She has crossed the US and Canada alone, taken extreme chances in the stock market, bet often in casinos, and yet balanced it with serious jobs in managerial finance. “I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie,” she says.
Connect with Angie on her Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/author/angelajconradaceshigh11, or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorangelajconrad.
Kathleen Hesser Skrzypczak
Kathy was born and raised in Pine Grove, PA. A small town girl with big city dreams, she moved to New York City with two-hundred dollars in her pocket and a degree in English Literature from Gettysburg College to pursue a career in advertising. After winning awards for clients like Penthouse Magazine, Tanqueray Gin, and Johnnie Walker Black Scotch, she left the glamorous life of the city to live in New Jersey with her husband and raise her three awesome kids. Her most recent success was publishing a popular blog about a family RV trip to Nova Scotia. Her latest adventure is a romantic comedy book series she’s co-authoring with accomplished Amazon author, Angela J. Conrad. When she’s not writing, Kathleen loves to dance, sing, and cook, sometimes all at the same time.
Connect with Kathy on her Amazon page: amazon.com/author/kathleenhesserwriter, or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/authorskrzypczak/.
Today on The Writing Well I am delighted to feature debut novelist Liz Lazarus of Atlanta, whose new psychological thriller, Free of Malice, is generating a lot of buzz, especially among book clubs.
In her author bio, Liz shares that her novel was inspired by an actual foiled attack when she was a college senior at Georgia Tech nearly two decades ago. She was living off campus when she was jarred awake by the sound of her bedroom door crashing open. She fought back before this would-be-rapist eventually fled. Though Liz physically survived the attack, emotionally, her sense of security was shaken. As a means to heal, she began writing about that night and the changes to her life.
At a time when college assaults are at epidemic proportions (a recent Association of American Universities survey of 150,000 female college students found that 23% had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact), the timing has never been better for this story. Free of Malice poses the question of whether shooting the would-be attacker as he was fleeing the property would be deemed self-defense in today’s criminal justice system. In her gripping novel, which is half who-done-it, and half hypothetical courtroom drama, Liz takes the reader on a suspenseful journey of self-discovery and empowerment of the victim even as readers second-guess who is behind the attack.
“As a long-time courtroom and Law and Order junkie and major fan of Perry Mason, I could not put this book down,” writes one book club fan. Another early reader called it “a gritty, intense, engaging Southern “courtroom” drama with gripping suspense.”
Below, Liz shares more about her process writing the book and her experience navigating the many publishing options available to new writers. I learned a lot from her insights and her incredibly detailed and highly effective marketing approach to get the book in the hands of readers most interested in the psychological issues of violence and gun ownership as well as the often murky area of what constitutes self-defense in today’s justice system.
Q. As discussed, your novel, Free of Malice, was inspired by an actual incident. What made you decide to write this book 20 years later?
Liz: Writing this book was always on my “bucket list” but I had some great career opportunities that I chose to pursue first. Just a few years after the incident, my employer offered me an expatriate assignment in Paris, France, so I moved overseas for three years, which was a fantastic experience, both professionally and personally. When I returned to the states, I had the chance to pursue my executive MBA at Northwestern, which was another great opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.
My career continued to flourish, but didn’t really allow me the time to do the research I needed for the book. At one point, I wondered if the story would still be relevant, but the truth is that it has only become more newsworthy over time. I finally decided to take a leave of absence from work to write the book which finally allowed me the time to put the thoughts that had been swirling in my mind to paper. It also led to my career transition, as I became a partner in a consulting firm once I had completed the novel. The best description I can give is that this book was a calling, and I feel like it unfolded at the right time. There have been a few coincidences, or “G-d-winks” as people say, that have led me to believe that I choose the right path.
Q. Your story tackles the legal questions about self-defense — whether you can legally shoot an intruder if you are not in imminent danger (i.e. they have backed off). What was the most surprising aspect of the law that you uncovered while researching this question for your book?
Liz: I learned so much about the criminal justice system during my research and had the great fortune to consult with a few criminal defense attorneys regarding the story. I’d have to say that one of the most interesting parts of my research was the whole jury selection process. It’s almost more accurate to call it de-selection as both sides do their best to rule out jurors who would be damaging to their case.
I was able to gain a “fly on the wall” view of the process as I tagged along with one of the attorneys and found it fascinating. For example, one of the questions they asked the potential jurors was if anyone was a supervisor. At first, I couldn’t understand why that would matter until my lawyer friend explained that they were looking for people with leadership experience as they would likely be nominated as jury foreman.
Q. I heard you say that it was easier to get your pilot’s license than to navigate book publishing. What made you decide to self-publish? What are your top 2-3 tips for new authors thinking of going down a similar path?
Liz: Yes, getting my pilot’s license was one of the other “bucket list” items I completed, and it’s true, it was easier. The reason I say this is that there is very clear instruction when learning to fly a plane, both in textbook application and in maneuvering in the air. There are steps to take and my flight instructor guided me along the way. For traditionally published authors, once the galley is complete, the publishing house takes over. They have a “flight instructor” to steer the content editing, copy editing, layout, cover design, printing, distribution, etc. but because I self-published, I had to learn all these steps myself.
Would I do it differently in the future? There are pros and cons to both. The biggest pro to traditional publishing is that you are “pre-qualified” meaning that the quality of your work is not put into question. Because there is large variation in quality in the “Indie” or self-published world, I’ve had to make an extra effort to prove my work is of high quality, even though I paid for rounds of professional editing and layout.
I wrote a blog called “The 12 Steps to Self-Publishing” that has a lot of useful tips I learned – it’s on my website if you’d like to read more. Since you asked, my top 3 are (1) buy your own ISBN so you control the distribution (2) pay for a professional editor – it’s worth it, and (3) print on demand with a source like CreateSpace so you can make corrections because there will be more typos than you can possibly imagine.
Q. I love your author website and your marketing approach to reach readers. What elements of your marketing have been most effective? How important is it for independent authors to know who their readers are and reach them online?
Liz: Goodreads has been a great source. Early on, I ran a few giveaways, which increased exposure for my book and provided some advance reviews. And, the support staff at Goodreads could not be more helpful—they are top notch. I’m a strong believer in knowing and segmenting your target audience. I would tell all authors to ask these questions:
- Description – who is your target audience?
- Passion / Motivation – what are their passions, motivations?
- Messaging – what do you want them to know about you and about your book?
- Influencers / Leaders – who are the people who speak out for this group? How do you reach them?
Per your question, reaching readers and influencers is key. I choose my books by referrals and I assume most readers do, too.
Q. What has been the response to your book so far? What audience segments are most interested in your story? Any surprises there?
Liz: The response has been humbling. I joke that you can’t tell if your baby is ugly and I had no way to measure my own work. But, when strangers write such positive notes on Amazon and Goodreads, I’m really blown away. Right now, we’re at 80+ reviews on Goodreads with a 4.5/5.0 stars, which is amazing. There are a few groups that have really “taken” to the book.
- Book clubs – I’ve had a few book clubs tell me that they had the most vigorous debates after reading Free of Malice. Here’s one quote, “Our book club read this first novel by Liz Lazarus and this was by far one of the BEST discussions that I have ever experienced!!! The twists in this book will have you second guessing until you get to the end.”
- Attack survivors – because part of the book is based on a true event, when I was attacked in college, I wrote about the after-effects to heal. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was writing the beginning of my book. I’ve had several rape survivors tell me the book was cathartic, that they felt more normal after reading my book because some of the neurosis they felt was shown in the Laura character, too.
- Women interested in guns & self-protection – I’ve spoken to several groups in this category and they have been so receptive and supportive, particularly when I share tips I’ve learned about self-protection and gun safety.
- One group I expected to hear more from was the EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapists since this unique therapy is depicted in the book. That said, we haven’t diligently approached that group yet so maybe it’s just a matter of time. One of my favorite endorsements does come from an EMDR therapist, “Utterly absorbing! Integrates state-of-the-art psychotherapy techniques with all the elements of a classic thriller.”
Q. One of the more interesting features of your book marketing is that you actually have a song that you co-produced which is the theme song to your book. How did this come about and do you think it has added another dimension to your story for your readers?
Liz: I absolutely love that my book has a theme song and it was always my intention. You see, the young, black lawyer character in my book is loosely based on my best friend from college, Thomas Barnette. We met our first day at Georgia Tech when we both got lost trying to find the civil engineering building and we’ve been close ever since. Back then, I had no idea that Thomas was such a talented signer—he kept that part of his life hidden.
One day after we had graduated, he played a CD for me in his car and the man’s voice was amazing, kind of a Seal meets U2. I literally didn’t believe it was Thomas so he had to sing to me to prove it. From that day on, we talked about producing a music CD. Ironically, right after I took my leave of absence from work to write my book, a check arrived for some salary I had deferred and it was the exact amount we needed for the CD. So when you asked earlier, why so long to write the book, co-producing Thomas’ CD was another worthy diversion.
In my novel, the lawyer character takes the stage at Eddie’s Attic, one of the many Atlanta locations that I feature. Here, readers can either pull out their QR app and hear the real Thomas singing Let Me Breathe or go to my website, www.freeofmalice.com and hear it online. To me, it adds another dimension to the book, to hear the character’s voice. Thomas also sang at my launch party and we are planning a few joint events throughout the year.
Q. What’s next for you? Do you have plans to write another book?
Liz: Free of Malice just launched in late March, so I’m still promoting the book – doing radio shows, podcasts, visiting book clubs and other groups. I do have an idea for another book that is alluded to at the end of this one (no spoilers!). I’ve received quite a few comments from readers like, “can’t wait for Liz’s next book.” I didn’t expect that reaction at all but take it as a huge compliment. Now the challenge is live up to those expectations, right?
About the Author
A native of Valdosta, Georgia, Liz Lazarus graduated from Georgia Tech with an engineering degree and went on to a successful career at General Electric before joining a consulting firm.
She lives in Atlanta, is engaged to fiancé, Richard, and is a partner at a consulting firm focused on strategic planning. When she is not working, Liz enjoys reading, traveling, and spoiling Buckwheat, their cat. Follow her on Twitter @liz_lazarus.
By Anne Wainscott-Sargent
Seventy-nine years ago today the German passenger airship the Hindenburg disintegrated in a fiery crash in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
The disaster killed 36 passengers and 61 crewmen, and became the stuff of legend due to gripping newsreel coverage, photographs, and Herbert Morrison’s radio eyewitness reports from the landing field.
But, it’s Ariel Lawhon’s 2016 re-imagining of the doomed airship that has put a fresh lens on the story and with good reason: Lawhon knows how to blend real events into a compelling tale of what might have caused the explosion. It kept me turning pages well into the early morning hours.
Flight of Dreams tells the story of the Hindenburg from the vantage point of three actual crewmembers — a navigator, stewardess and cabin boy — and two passengers –a journalist and businessman. “At every page a guilty secret bobs up; at every page Lawhon keeps us guessing. Who will bring down the Hindenburg? And how?” writes The New York Times Book Review, while People Magazine described Flight of Dreams as “an enthralling nail-biter…[E]verything points to the inevitable disaster – but you’re still on the edge of your seat.”
Below, Ariel shares her journey recreating the last moments on board the Hindenburg, her love of history, and the one thing every aspiring writer needs to do.
Anne: As a lover of historical fiction, I am a big fan of the subject matter for both your first book, The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress, and Flight of Dreams. What is it about historical events that appeals to you as a storyteller?
Ariel: Oh thank you so much! I’m always glad to find another fan of historical fiction. I think that I’m drawn to those moments in history that remain unsolved. Whether it’s a missing judge as in my first book, or a disaster like the Hindenburg. I’m looking for those moments that have settled in the public consciousness but still have lingering questions. I enjoy exploring those events and coming up with my own theories as to what really happened.
Anne: What research sources did you draw upon to give your story authenticity and to put people in the time period of the Nazi Reich’s rise in the 1930s and to feel as though they were on board the Hindenburg?
Ariel: I primarily looked to survivor accounts (almost all of the people who survived that crash went on to write about it at some point in their lives), biographies like HINDENBURG: An Illustrated History, and hundreds of pages of biographical information about the passengers and crewmembers. With a project like this, the key is to immerse yourself fully in the subject as you work. I have to become a short-term expert. The good thing is that I love this type of work. I love to learn about different time periods and moments in history.
Anne: Point of view and characters are really critical components of telling a powerful story. Which character (and point of view) do you think is the most compelling in Flight of Dreams and why?
Ariel: That’s a great question! And while I don’t think any of the five points of view in Flight of Dreams is more important than another—I put them all there for a reason and they each have a purpose in the story—I can say that I related most to Gertrud Adelt. She was a bright, young, brash journalist who had just lost her press card. She was a mother. She was scared. She was madly in love with her husband. I understand all of these things and developed a deep affinity for her in particular.
Anne: In a previous Writing Well interview, you talked about plot and pacing, saying that the key to effective story pacing is to ask a question and as soon as you answer it, ask another so the story doesn’t sag and the reader will be motivated to keep reading. You also said that the little questions also have to support the “big” question. Do you think you did a good job following that approach with Flight of Dreams? What is the big question that underscores your story?
Ariel: What a great memory you have! The central question to Flight of Dreams, the question asked on the very first page is “What caused the disaster?” Every scene in the entire book builds to answering that question. Was it sabotage? Was it accident? Was it simply a tragic mistake? I want the reader to ask that question over and over in different ways as they read the novel. And I have to admit that I’m very satisfied with how I answered that question in the end.
Anne: How was Flight of Dreams easier/more difficult/different than your first book?
Ariel: Every book is so different. But I can say that this was the first novel I wrote under contract. And somehow knowing that the book would be published gave me a confidence that I didn’t have with my first novel and I do think that shows on the page. That said, writing under contract also brings a great deal of pressure and if you don’t learn to set that aside in the morning when you sit down to work it can stomp out your creativity. Also, this subject is so well documented that the research was easier.
Anne: The buzz for your book has been phenomenal. Are you getting interest from Hollywood to option your book for film?
Ariel: Flight of Dreams has been shopped widely in Hollywood but so far no one is interested in making it into a film. To me the reasons behind the disinterest are fascinating. I wrote a novel about the people on board the last flight of the Hindenburg. But producers have universally rejected the idea because they want no part of telling the story of an infamous German airship. Even though, in reality, the story is not about an airship at all. It’s about the people who were caught up in one of history’s most well known tragedies. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.
Anne: What advice do you have for other authors, who are looking to tackle larger-than-life historical events in their novels? Any advice?
Ariel: The same advice I always give. Write the book. There is no agent without the book. There is no editor without the book. There is no career without the book. I find that most people get caught up in the small things like research or plot questions or an agent search. In reality all of those things sort themselves out. Having a finished book that has been revised and edited and rewritten countless times until it sparkles is the only important thing.
Anne: What’s next on the horizon for you — next book or other creative projects? Are you still blogging?
Ariel: I blog when I can. But with four children and a very busy life I often skip the blogging in favor of working on my next book. Which, in this case, is a novel tentatively called, I Was Anastasia. It’s a dual narrative about the last days of Anastasia Romanov and the woman who became her most famous imposter.
About the Author
Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She’s the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS (Doubleday, 2014) and the upcoming FLIGHT OF DREAMS (February, 2016). She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus) and a black lab who is, thankfully, a girl. Follow her on Twitter @ArielLawhon or on Facebook.
Read her tips on premise, plot and pacing on The Writing Well shared at the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference.