Category Archives: Book Reviews

A Question of Self-Defense: Woman Turns a Would-be Attack into a Successful Psychological Thriller

FreeofMalice-Cover-LR

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 Scales of Justicefortune 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, thomasbarnnete-600x600the 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

LizLazarusA 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.

 

Talking Story with Flight of Dreams Author on the Anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster

Flight of Dreams

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 The Wife the Maid The MistressI’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 Hindenburg An Illustrated Historywent 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 thatHindenburg_burning 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 Lawhon2Ariel 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.

Storm Storyteller: A Q&A with New York Times’ Bestselling Author Kim Cross

 

Kim Cross Book Cover

The day I spoke with Alabama author Kim Cross, it was on the one-year anniversary of her first book being published. The Alabama native and contributing editor with Southern Living Magazine wrote What Stands in a Storm, her riveting New York Times’ bestseller published by Atria/Simon & Schuster.

The book captures the true story of love and resilience in the worst superstorm in history – a three-day storm  in late April 2011 that unleashed 349 tornadoes in 21 states, destroying entire towns.  Alabama was ground zero for the disaster, where on April 27 alone a total of 62 tornadoes raked the state. The storm also claimed 324 lives, most of them in Alabama, which now leads the nation in tornado deaths.

Kim Cross, her son in the background, at the Roswell Reads Literary Luncheon held on March 12.

Kim Cross, her son in the background, at the Roswell Reads Literary Luncheon held on March 12.

Kim and I spoke by phone as she was driving to Roswell, Georgia, where today she was honored as the featured author for the Eleventh annual Roswell Reads Community Read program.  Having finished her book in two days, I can attest to its power. The story was impossible to put down – it pulsates with tension as I experienced the love of friends and neighbors, parents and children, in  the tension-filled moments leading up to the storm and its aftermath.

Ron Powers, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and coauthor of Flags of Our Fathers said it best: “…the terse dark poetry of this debut book explodes from every page.”

As a Dayton, Ohio, native who remembers as a child hearing the tornado sirens from neighboring Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, I was keen to talk to Kim. I also have been working on my own disaster story – the retelling of a historic flood that destroyed Dayton 100 years ago, I found reading her book and learning her writing process incredibly helpful and inspiring as I edit my own work.

What Stands in a Storm is Kim’s first book, but it doesn’t read like it.  Her narrative was born from a magazine story she wrote with Alabama native son Rick Bragg for Southern Living.  Rick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, was living in Tuscaloosa at the time. He and his family made it through the storm, but their street was hit “really bad.”  Kim asked him to write something from the heart of what it meant to be in this storm and he agreed.  His intro paired with her reporting along with fellow staffer Erin Shaw struck a chord in people. According to Kim, “We got hundreds of messages from readers, who said, ‘That it was the first time I ever cried while reading Southern Living.’ I realized it was touching this emotional place inside of people… I felt like that story needed to be told.”

Isaac's StormThe Perfect Storm“I started to look around and I realized that we have epic bestselling books about hurricanes and floods and Nor’easters (The Perfect Storm), but we didn’t find a book like that about tornadoes that really did it well. I wanted something like Isaac’s Storm and The Perfect Storm. I don’t know if I was aiming too high but that’s what I was hoping to do,” she said.

I think Kim met that standard of excellence and exceeded it with her phenomenal storytelling. Below is our expanded conversation.

 

Q. Where were you on April 27, 2011?

Kim: My husband and I were sitting on our couch [in a suburb of Birmingham] with our son who was 4 at the time, watching weatherman James Spann as the tornado went through Tuscaloosa.

It was awful. We knew the town so well. I had gone to college twice in Tuscaloosa and we had lived there. There is this moment where you watching it and it feels like a movie. It reminded me when we were all watching TV and the Twin Towers fell. I remember feeling, ‘Is this real?’ Then you have this moment when you realize, ‘I’m watching people die right now’ and it’s a horrible feeling.

Then the Tuscaloosa EF4 started making its way toward Birmingham and it actually got a little bit bigger as it came. From what we could tell we were right in its path. At some point the power went off and we lost TV. I watched live Twitter feeds from my phone, watching Jim, who knows the neighborhoods so well. At one point he called our neighborhood and that’s where it got really scary. My husband is an Eagle Scout – he’s Mr. Prepared. He was the one who had us put on bike helmets before it was widely done.  Studies show that a helmet would have saved a lot of lives because of flying debris.

Waiting out a tornado is one of the few times in life where you have time to think about impending death.  Usually you get a lot of time to think about it because you’re sick or there’s no time to think because it happens so fast.   When the tornado passed – we didn’t see much of anything in our neighborhood but seven miles away a neighborhood of Birmingham was just flattened. It came within two or three miles of downtown Birmingham.”’

Q. I always thought that tornadoes mostly struck the central of the country – Kansas.

Kim: People think of Oklahoma and Kansas having a larger volume of tornadoes, but  Alabama and the South – the so-called Dixie Alley — has more of the big ones, more of the EF4s and EF5s, so the numbers are a little deceptive. The other thing is Oklahoma and Kansas are flat, there aren’t a lot of trees and it’s not real humid so you can see the tornadoes and get out of the way. The chasers go there and that’s where they get filmed. Tornado chasers don’t generally chase in the South because we have a lot of hills and a lot of trees, and the roads are windy — they don’t go in a grid. It’s really hard to see the tornado across the landscape.

Q. I was impressed with the degree of research you had in your book. How important was research in writing What Stands in a Storm?

Kim: It was everything. I probably spent 80% of my time on research and 20% of time in an outright panic trying to get words on a page. There was so much research that went into it because it wasn’t this straightforward narrative in the sense that the central characters are all victims… There are so many stories that deserved to be told but you can only tell a few without confusing and losing the reader.

I started by getting the weather reports and the tornado tracks and see what towns were hit and then I went to all the newspapers in those towns to look up who was lost and who they were and who was left behind. I felt pretty strong from the beginning that Tuscaloosa was going to be one of my focused towns — one it’s the one people remember. People outside Alabama know Tuscaloosa because of Crimson Tide. It was well documented and also because it was one of my hometowns – I knew it very well.  But I also wanted to tell the story of a small town and a volunteer fire department — a community that didn’t have the well-funded, well-equipped fire department / rescue squads that a town like Tuscaloosa would have. That represents most of the towns in Alabama and most of the towns in the country. They are saving people just the same as people who are paid a full-time salary.

Q. You did an amazing job introducing readers to some of the Alabamans whose lives were forever changed by the storm. What story resonated most with you on a personal level?

Kim: The story of the three college students — Danielle, Will and Loryn. I could relate to all of them in a different way. They were all working so hard to get through school and they were from a small town and close to their families. I felt a great emotional investment in each of them. When I look at my son I think of Will – Will was a brunette little boy who loves his mom. I think about Danielle and how much she just busted her ass to put herself through college, to work, and to fight for her grades. I liked her feistiness and her pragmatism.  She wasn’t going to let anyone bully her sister. I like Loryn’s spirit and the fact that she was just wide open – she had a great head on her shoulders and was the kind of girl who was comfortable in a dress or cowboy boots.

I wanted you as a reader to not know who lives or dies until it happened  for the reason that if you know who is going to die, you keep them at arm’s length and you don’t allow yourself to care about them too much. I wanted you to paint your own faces on these characters.  That’s why there are no photos in the book so that when you did lose them, you really felt like you lost someone you cared about.  My editor was the one who insisted on no photos.

Q. Your description of the destruction from the storm was almost its own character. How were you able to do that so vividly?

Kim: I got my hands on every video I could –so I could feel like I was there. There were some riveting videos. If you go on my website there is a little playlist I created. I read fictional accounts – including Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. She did a wonderful job of describing a hurricane. I studied the heck out of her verbs. I tried to figure out “how did she do that? What did she do there?” I read and re-read The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm.

Q. How did you get your book published by a major imprint?

Kim: I had an agent, Jim Hornfischer, who I met at a literary non-fiction conference in Dallas. I always wanted to write a book and had gone to grad school and wrote a book about two nuns. It just wasn’t the right first book [I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a religion writer]. I met Jim and I just knew he was the one — a straight shooter. We started batting ideas around for a book. I said, what about this [a story about the storm]? A lot of magazine stories evolve into books. I feel like the emotional response from readers in Southern Living shows how much people needed this story.  When something horrible happens (like a tornado), you’re in just one little spot. I thought it might be helpful and healing for people to understand the magnitude of what happened but also the beautiful things that came from the brokenness. I think it turned out to be the perfect first book. I love science – taking something really complicated and esoteric and trying to make it come alive and be understandable for a lay reader.

Q. If you were going to advise someone who is writing that first book, what pearl of wisdom would you share that you learned from this experience?

Kim: To study structure in other books. Structure is the hardest thing. I didn’t understand structure when I wrote my earlier [unpublished] book – I’m going to have to go back and rewrite it.  I also didn’t understand how book publishing worked. If you are a fiction writer, you write the book and then you find an agent who likes it and the agent helps you revise it and get it into shape and he or she sends the entire manuscript to publishers.

With non-fiction, you don’t write the book – you write a proposal, which is a 60 to 70-page document that lays out a blueprint of your book, including why this book is different. It has a 35- or 40-page chapter outline and you have to explain who your audience is and what your marketing plan is because it’s not enough to write a good book, you have to sell it. Publishers want to know if you have a platform and social media followers. The harder you work on the front end to get the proposal great, the easier it will be on the tail end to both write the book and sell it. You have to chip at it every day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Also, you never feel done and you can never fact check it enough. I didn’t realize …magazines come with a staff of fact checkers who go behind you and they call your sources and make sure everything you’ve written about them is correct.  Book publishers don’t have that, so if something is wrong, it’s all on you. I actually sold a beloved a mountain bike so I could pay for a National Geographic-trained fact checker.  I ‘m glad I did it.

Q. How many places did your agent send out your manuscript?

Kim: I think my agent sent it out to 10 to 12 big New York imprints of publishing houses. I had two bid on it, including an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The rejections were so nice – they said we love the writing; we love the idea. The flaw they saw is that they didn’t see the characters [because I hadn’t fleshed them out yet], or they said that the story was going to too many places.

Q. How has the book done?

Kim: So far no one has come forward to come forward with a correction. Regionally it’s done well but I can’t get it on the national radar. The other thing I’ll say – this whole NY Bestseller List is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It did well enough in the first two months that it got on one of these narrow sublists of The New York Times – adventures, disasters and expeditions. The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm are still on that list so I imagine it is not that big of a category. But, when that happens you get to put it on the paperback.

Q. How important is social media if you want to reach readers for your book?

Kim: I feel it’s an evil I have to deal with. Honestly it’s one of the hardest things we as authors have to deal with because most authors are introverts and in order to promote a book, you have to put your extrovert hat on. For social media – so much of it feel not very authentic… I’m torn about it.  I feel like you can’t afford to not be on them unless you are Rick Bragg who has never been on them and people don’t expect you to be on them. I enjoy Instagram – I think that’s my favorite of the social channels.

One positive [aspect of Twitter] is you get to dialogue with readers. It’s an interesting reporting tool. You want to hear how people are interacting with your work.  I put out something on all the social channels – where I’m looking for people who had a certain kind of Schwinn bike when they were a kid.  People are posting pictures of their bike. The other way I use it is to put out some of my process of writing. When I went on a writers’ residency where I had to churn out 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, I shared that with my followers. Some days it came easy other days it didn’t. I think people need to see that writing is a lot of work. This is what the process looks like – it’s messy; it’s hard.

Author Bio

Kim CrossKim Cross is a contributing editor for Southern Living and a feature writer who has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of American Travel Writers, and the Media Industry Newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Cooking Light, Bicycling, Bike, Runner’s World, Parade magazine, Popular Mechanics, The Tampa Bay Times, The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, USA TODAY, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and CNN.com. She lives in Alabama.  Connect with her at kimhcross.com

 

 

 

 

Book Launch a Success – 4 Ways Authors can Build a Platform & Engage Readers

Wave of Books

The last seven months spent researching Atlanta’s amazing neighborhoods and the entertainment, economic and environmental drivers of the metro area culminated yesterday as we celebrated my book launch at Atlanta Movie Tours in Castleberry Hill, an up-and-coming artist loft neighborhood and popular filming spot in south downtown. More than 40 people made it to my event, in spite of light rain and the Donald’s appearance at a rally at the Georgia World Congress Center less than a mile from our venue.

The story of this book project and the way I approached both writing and marketing it are probably worth a few words on The Writing Well — at least for the benefit of other writers.  First, a bit about the book.

Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide is the seventh guide book published by Newt Barrett of Voyager Media based in Estero, Fla.  His other books have

My publisher Newt Barrett from Voyager Media was on hand to celebrate the book launch.

My publisher Newt Barrett from Voyager Media was on hand to celebrate the book launch.

spotlighted medium-sized cities such as Charleston, Tampa, Sarasota and Naples.  Atlanta is by far his most ambitious city to tackle based on its sheer size and diversity. It was a big challenge to capture the story of Atlanta in 152 pages.  I felt strongly that I needed to quote actual residents, who knew Atlanta’s diverse neighborhoods the best, and that’s what I did.

  • For the chapter on education, I talked to two Atlanta moms who have navigated Atlanta’s public and private school systems in meeting their children’s learning needs ,and an academic dean of continuing education who briefed me on the many adult continuing education courses available to residents.
  • For the chapter on entertainment, I talked to the editor of Creative Loafing Atlanta, the president of Atlanta’s Lawn and Tennis Association, and the founder of AtlantaTrails.com.
  • For the chapter on choosing where to live, I quoted realtors and residents in 18 intown neighborhoods and six suburban communities.

SpeechcroppedIn remarks to guests at my party yesterday, I thanked all the people who have contributed to my book. I said, “You’ve made Moving to Atlanta something more than a typical guide book …you’ve helped present an authentic picture of what it’s like to be a part of this amazing city. Your input, I’m sure, will help people decide if Atlanta is right for them. They’ll be able to begin to narrow down which neighborhood or community they could call home.”

I hope it will meet the needs of prospective new residents, but I also hope it is an enjoyable narrative for Atlanta natives. That’s why I was so happy to read this comment from an early Amazon reviewer:

“As someone who has lived in this wonderful state and city for almost 35 years… I have to say I’m impressed. ‘Moving to Atlanta…’ is up to date… contemporary with a wide range of information and tidbits about the city… its politics, people and culture. Spending 20 years here as a journalist has given me a unique perspective and access to all of the city and its neighborhoods… both inside and OTP (outside the perimeter, as they say..) The author covers the good and the bad (traffic and rush hour!!). But anyone contemplating moving to our city will soon learn the ebb and flow of the city and its interstate. Recommending the Wayze App is a good start.”

Writing a book as good as it can be is only the start of what we as authors must do. Marketing is when the real work begins! Here are 4 tips that I took to heart when developing my own marketing plan and author platform:

#1 Partner with people, brands and businesses that can help elevate your book.

Carrie_Anne_photobyPam Sabin

With Carrie Burns, founder of Atlanta Movie Tours.

For Moving to Atlanta, I ended up aligning myself with Carrie Burns of Atlanta Movie Tours, the center of Atlanta’s film tourism movement. I interviewed her for the Hollywood of the South chapter and learned that she was president of the Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association, so was able to tap into her insights of having lived in that community for 15 years in my “Choosing Where to Live” chapter. Carrie not only offered to host my author party, but also brought in The Smoke Ring, a hip BBQ restaurant nearby, and both of these businesses contributed gifts to raffle at my party, and are now active on social media promoting my book by retweeting highlights of the launch.

#2 Don’t just post or tweet your book, engage people on social media. ScreenShotQuiz                               

  • Share your journey along the way – I posted milestones as I was writing key chapters and shooting photos around the city on Facebook. Photos are a great way to engage followers to envision your book coming to life and feel invested in its success.
  • Do a contest – I asked Facebook followers to weigh in on the top 10 reasons to move to Atlanta for a chance to win a free book.
  • Embrace trivia  surveys – I created a survey to test people’s knowledge of ATL – the answers found in my book. I incorporated humor into the summaries where people are ranked based on how well they answered questions. They could be an “All-knTriviaShot_All-knowingowing Atlanta Insider” or a “Soon-to-be-Undead” in homage to the zombie-hit TV series, “The Walking Dead” filmed here.

#3 Build relationships with journalists, PR influencers and bloggers.

They are powerful allies to get word out on your book because these folks already have a platform and readers! In a sea of so many other books being published, this is one way to be strategic and position your book that can really help boost your profile.

The key here is to target outlets that fall into one of these categories: (a.)  they love your book topic — it ties to what their readers care about (b.) they are looking to feature local residents doing interesting things (especially a publication more local or hyper local focused such as the Patch) or (c.) they want to help you succeed because they know you and your capabilities as a storyteller, interviewer and writer. I find featuring other authors on my blog, The Writing Well, creates a lot of goodwill and willingness to blurb and blog about your book to “pay it forward.” I know at least one 11-time fiction book author who says a major factor in him being able to attract 50,000 Twitter followers is engaging with other writers.

Travis Taylor, founder of the tourist blog, wanderlust Atlanta, getting his signed copy of Moving to Atlanta.

Travis Taylor, founder of the tourist blog, wanderlust Atlanta, getting his signed copy of Moving to Atlanta.

Some of the blogs and news sites that are either covering Moving to Atlanta in editorial, or are promoting it on social media include: ALTA’s Net News magazine; Vinings Lifestyle Magazine; Points North Atlanta magazine; wanderlust Atlanta, a blog exploring some of Atlanta’s most popular tourist destinations; AtlantaTrails.com; and “Mitch’s Media Musings,” an Atlanta Media blog by Mitch Leff, who is interviewed in my book on what the media environment is like in Atlanta.

In late March, I will be featured on BlogTalkRadio’s show, “Write Books that Sell Now,” where I will talk about Moving to Atlanta and other book-writing projects that cross genres. One of the hosts of that program, Anita Henderson, known as the “author’s midwife,” is a respected colleague who has been interviewed on “The Writing Well.”

#4 Get your book reviewed early on Amazon…and don’t forget to secure a few book blurbs.

Advance Reader Praise Advance Reader Praise_Eric Advance Reader Praise_Grant Heath

This is important, and it means thinking strategically  about who would be the best person to blurb your book. In my case real estate agents who know Atlanta and executive recruiters who are focused on attracting talent to Atlanta as well as new residents or people thinking about moving to Atlanta. I was fortunate to secure all three for Moving to Atlanta, with two making it on the book jacket.

One Final Thought

Finally, the hardest thing about marketing is turning it off so you have time to write…I am still working on that as I carve out time to finish my novel this year while continuing to market my current book. There’s no question that being an author today is not just about great writing and research skills. It’s also about being strategic with your time, and finding ways to get your network of connections to work with you to get the word out.

I wish all writers the best in their efforts on both fronts — don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for people to support you. Believe it when I say, it takes a village to be an author.

Let’s Get Social!

Follow Anne’s new book adventure on social media or visit her book website at these links:

Website: www.MovingtoAtlantaGuide.com

Twitter: @MovingtoAtlanta

Facebook:   http://bit.ly/M2AFacebook

Amazon: http://bit.ly/M2AAmazon

Moving to Atlanta Trivia Quiz:     http://bit.ly/MovingtoAtlantaQuiz

 

 

Writing Becomes…Jeffrey Herrington (Eaton)

 

JeffHerrington_MBMiami-cover-500          JeffHerrington_MBManhattan-cover-500

Great storytellers are my favorite people – they have energy and a curiosity for life; they are students of human nature and what drives behavior; and they have a gift for crafting a tale that keeps one transfixed.

That’s probably why Jeff Herrington is one of my favorite storytellers. The first time I met Jeff, I was a twenty-something corporate communicator working for NCR’s Employee Communications team in Dayton.  Jeff had flown in from Dallas to do a writing workshop that was filled with practical examples and best practices on how to reach and keep the attention of our readers. Jeff, even then, was at the top of his game, having done amazing projects for Fortune 500 clients like Whirlpool. His session kept my co-workers and I completely engaged. He knew the way to communicate with impact was through story.

It was no surprise to me that he has applied his considerable writing chops to the realm of novel writing, penning two mystery thrillers, Murder Becomes Manhattan and more recently, Murder Becomes Miami under his pen name Jeffrey Eaton.

The books are branded as “A Dalton Lee Mystery” – in honor of his quirky main character, a highly astute architect with a past. (By the way, Jeff, an architecture buff, has filled his books with wonderful insights on some of New York City’s and Miami’s most famous buildings).   I found his premise and plot compelling – and the characters fun and very real. His details on the setting were so authentic that I was transported into the middle of the Big Apple. (In fact, readers can get acquainted with not only the murder scenes in his book, but also the detectives, victims and suspects on his well-crafted book page, http://www.murdermanhattan.com.)

I reached out to Jeff to find out more about his books, what he’s learned on the path to published author, how to build audience and whether his corporate communications career has helped or hurt him along the way.  His responses, provided lightning fast after I shot the questions over to him, will enlighten the veteran and the virgin writer. Thanks for generously sharing your gifts, Jeff!

Q. What sparked your idea for your mystery thriller series?

Jeff: For some reason, I have always been drawn to stories of intrigue. I was a big fan of The Hardy Boys Mystery Series between ages 7 -12. After that, I got hooked on Agatha Christie’s novels. So writing mysteries has always been lurking in the back of my mind as something I’d like to do.

Then, a few years ago, I was in a bookstore and saw Sue Grafton’s series using the alphabet (A is for Alibi) and I thought, “What a gig!” It got me to thinking about how I might create a similar but different series and the idea of having each novel set in a different global location, but all starting with the letter ‘M’ was born.

Q. What was the most challenging and gratifying aspect to seeing your idea become a published book? What would you like to have done differently the first time (publishing or writing lesson to share with other aspiring authors)?

 

Jeff: The most challenging aspect was (and continues to be) finding the time to market the books. Although I enjoy marketing, I’m not terribly comfortable with guerilla marketing but these days you really have to do that to get noticed in a crowd. It pays off — we spend a week marketing heavily and see sales climb as a result, but then they drop flat again the minute you stop. It’s relentless.

The most gratifying thing is seeing the reviews. Both “Murder Becomes Manhattan” and “Murder Becomes Miami” have average ratings above 4.0 out of 5. And some people are really really hooked on the series. That’s exciting — to know I have created something people really cannot wait to read on the airplane, or once they get to the pool at their hotel in Cancun.

Q. I know you are an accomplished corporate writer and lecturer who has traveled extensively. How has your career as a corporate communicator served you well as you crossed into the realm of book author?

Jeff: Great question. The downside is that, in corporate PR, we mostly write to the AP Stylebook. But in the world of fiction we write to the Chicago Manual of Style. Thank heavens I have an editor grounded in that!  The positive affect is that corporate communication emphasizes a need to get to the point quickly. I have adopted that in both books. You are very much dropped into the action from the get-go. Many readers have told me they find the books exciting in that way. They are ushered into the book pretty quickly and have to hold on from there.

Q. I noticed that you opted to not use your real name for your novels. What made you go in that direction?

Jeff: Three factors:  A) The desire for privacy and the opportunity to write other more serious books later under my real name if I choose B) The name Eaton fits on a book cover much more easily than does Herrington.  C) My father was a dancer in vaudeville and motion pictures back in the 1930s. His stage name was Jerry Eaton, so I chose Eaton as my ‘stage name’ as an homage to him.

Q. Who is your favorite character in each of your books and why?

 

Jeff: There is a team of architects/detectives in my books who work on solving the murders. However, my readers overwhelmingly seem to gravitate toward Dalton Lee, the head of the architecture firm and the main detective in the books. However, he has also become my favorite as well. Poor Dalton is 40ish and already grappling with the early stages of mid-life crisis. He has such a great heart but he is such a social oaf at times. Then there is the fact that statues, department store mannequins, even taxicab ashtrays have conversations with him. I think people find his quirkiness appealing, especially since, despite all of his goofiness, he is the genius who always solves the crime.

Q. Do you think writing a series is the wave of the future for authors? Do you find it’s an effective way to build audience?

 

Jeff: Certainly in the mystery genre it is. Most people are telling me they like the Miami book more than Manhattan, but mostly because it is like reconnecting with old friends and seeing story lines that piqued your interest in the first book evolve in the next, and so on.

From an author’s standpoint, it is a wise thing to do, for the maxim is you always sell more of your first book when the second book comes out, and so on. That has been the case for me, and on those days when we sell just 2 books, invariably it is one copy of one title and one copy of the other, which tells me one person likely bought both. Series build income, a following and back sales in a way individual stories don’t.

Q. What city or cities will you be tackling next for a setting to your thriller series?

 

Jeff: The next book is set in London. “But London doesn’t start with an ‘M’, Jeff” you say. You are right, however the entire book will be set in London’s most posh neighborhood, Mayfair. So there you go. The other cities and their order are a secret (the next location always gets revealed at the end of a current book), but I can say that places/events like Madrid, Milan, Malibu, Myanmar, Monte Carlo, Moscow and Mardi Gras are all in the running.

 

Q. What has been the most surprising reader feedback you’ve received to date?

Jeff: One person who REALLY did not like Manhattan said I had completely lost her when she hit the part that said the identities of certain hostages were made known to their family members when the captors sent those family members small body parts of the person.  “Yeah right,” she said, or something to that effect. And yet, that plot line is straight out of the headlines, has happened in real life many times over the past 10 years. I guess it is good that we don’t want to believe the world can be really that gruesome. But it is reality, and I’ve been surprised by a few people (very few) who haven’t been able to believe some of the very real things that take place in my books.

Q. How important is it to build audience via social media? What tactics and platforms have worked best for the type of readers you are trying to attract?

 

Jeff: Social media is tough. I have a cohort who is a master at it and he knocks things out all over the place all the time. We get lots of likes, followers etc. But getting that to translate into sales is not easy. To be honest, I find personal appearances to be far more helpful than social media right now. I give a talk at a book club or a bookstore and the books fly off the shelves.

That said, all it takes is one key connected person raving about your books to their friends on social media and the next thing you know you are a smash sensation. There are certain days where we sell 3, 5, 8 copies of the books and I know someone on social media somewhere must have said something to prompt those sales because I haven’t made a personal appearance that week.

About Jeff Herrington

JeffHerrington_AuthorPhotoJeff Herrington is the author of two novels, Murder Becomes Manhattan and Murder Becomes Miami under the pen name, Jeffrey Eaton. He is also the founder and president of Jeff Herrington Communications, a Dallas-based writing coaching and consulting company. He offers a wide range of workshops, training communication teams on their writing and their ability to come up with innovative content approaches.

A few of his workshop offerings include:

  • Writing for the Web
  • Effective Feature Articles and Case Studies
  • Effective Organizational Blogs
  • Making Your Writing More Powerful
  • Making Your Writing More Professional
  • Innovative Editorial Techniques

As a writer, Jeff has traveled to more than 45 countries on five continents as a writer for the internal and external publications of IBM, AT&T, Whirlpool, Baxter Healthcare and John Deere, among many other companies. Learn more about Jeff Herrington Communications at www.jeffherrington.com.

To read excerpts from Jeff’s books, visit his author pages:

The Art of the Book Review: A Conversation with Elaine Newton

By Anne Wainscott-Sargent

Every month starting in November through March, Naples, Florida, book lovers are treated to the insights of Elaine Newton, creator of the Critic’s Choice book club. This is no ordinary book club, and Elaine is no ordinary reviewer.

The self-described “compulsive researcher” and retired Toronto-based university professor in literature, humanities and psychology has taught people of all ages since the 1960s. She brings a lifelong love of books to her Elaine Newtoninterdisciplinary approach to her craft, which in essence is a master class in the art of the book review.

Her audience walks away with an entirely new appreciation for a work and a hunger for more. Elaine’s chosen books include critically acclaimed bestsellers and many of the most talked-about books of the last few decades, from Memoirs of a Geisha and Cold Mountain to The Goldfinch, The Help and The Paris Wife.

This past spring marked the 25th anniversary of her popular lecture series  (check out a list of all the books she has reviewed here). She frequently fills all 4,000 seats in Artis — Naples – the city’s Philharmonic Center for the Arts – making Critic’s Choice arguably the biggest book club in the world. Building on the success of her book series, Elaine now does film reviews, too.
“Once you’ve been to one, you never want to miss one,” says one loyal subscriber to her series.

The Writing Well caught up with the Phil’s “popular professor” in early June, after she’d left Naples for the cooler climate of her native Toronto. Below in a heartfelt Q&A, Elaine shares what she looks for in a great story, her critique process and what keeps her reading and engaged as a critic and lecturer year after year.

Q.  What do you look for in a book to tackle it in your lecture series? Does it have to meet a certain set of criteria of powerful storytelling?

Elaine: The final selection of the six books for the series is the end result of a long, but rewarding process that first produces the 35 novel Summer Reading List selection that I give out in April. I create that list with the help, over four or five months, of several key readers at Barnes and Nobles. Then I re-read about 12 novels from that list, chosen because I already have a sense that they would be fine choices for my audiences to read, and at the same time be novels I can live with, and think about, and respect over the many hours it will take to prepare the lectures.

My chosen novels must be extremely well-written, engaging, skillfully structured, peopled by characters who come off the page and are alive. But above all, I look for the human dimension, the moral wisdom. A book worth reading a number of times….I also want diversity in subject matter, authors, style, for the series.JoyofReading
The truth is…I would like each book we read in Critics Choice to be a masterly example of why we all read at all. Of the joy it gives us. The way it gives us perspective on the world we live in, and on ourselves in that world. Why would I ever ask anyone to read a novel if I didn’t think it was worthy of his or her time.

Q. What is your “process” for a typical book review in your lecture series? How long does it take from the moment you select a work to delivering your lecture? What is the most time-consuming part of the process?

Elaine: You really don’t want to know the work behind the “craft” do you? Untold hours. I am a compulsive researcher, and an obsessive re-reader. I need to know everything I can about the author, the subject, the publication path, and my own responses to all aspects of the novel itself. My husband will tell you that I “live” with the book and its author for the month of lecture writing. I write for four or five hours most days when I am in preparation mode — longer if I am nearing the presentation. I write in long hand, re-write in longhand, edit in long hand, and then a day or two beforehand, I rewrite a “clean” copy. Now you see why I must truly appreciate the novels I choose.

Q. Have you ever heard from an author, whose work you reviewed?

Elaine: Yes, a few times and from filmmakers too, after the movie reviews. Phillip Roth was in The-Human-Stainthe audience for The Human Stain. Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood were in the lecture hall when we taught courses together, and I lectured on their novels.
And of course, we have now had seven authors with me in our once-a-year Authors Dialogue at the Phil and we have spoken together of their work. So, in effect they have heard me review their work.  I also worked as book critic for The Toronto Globe and Mail for over 10 years. Any author who wished could read my reviews.

Q. What one thing makes your approach to reviewing books unique?

Elaine: I am a professor – this is what I am committed to do –to hopefully help people discover how to read happily, wisely and with the skills and insights that educators tutor others in. I also want to help everyone become better readers, and really able to understand the art of literature because that enriches one’s reading immeasurably. It’s like tennis, the more you play, the better you get at it, the more you enjoy playing.
Q. What has made you continue to do this year after year? Do you have a close connection to your audience/book aficionados?

Elaine: I am always so excited and delighted to bring a fine book to my friends and to classes and to audiences. To share my own insights with others. And I do believe that in these 25 years, we have” grown” a wonderful, engaged cadre of readers in Naples…what Gabrielle Zevin called in her thank-you note to me: “an amazing literary culture.”

Q. What prompted you to begin your film review series? How is reviewing a film different than reviewing a book? What makes a film great in your mind?

Elaine: The film reviews were a natural extension of the literary ones, we all want to discuss the movies we see, in the same way as we talk about the books we are reading. A good movie doesn’t end for us when we leave the theatre. And, the way we see the world, learn about ourselves and others though movies, is very much part of our society now. Film may well be the new literature.

Tickets for the movie series are sold-out very soon after the purchase dates are announced. But

Artis-Naples

Artis-Naples

tickets ARE available when returns occur…and can be purchased at the door about an hour or so before the lecture. The Thursday Book series is all sold out …again, last-minute tickets are available at 9.30 a.m. if there has been returns. BUT: Saturday morning is ALWAYS available. We use the large hall, and everyone is welcome. It’s best to buy tickets ahead if you can because the last minute line-ups are often large. But we open the box office a half hour before a performance.
All tickets are available to out-of-towners by calling the box office, or buying on the internet at the Artis Naples site.

Q. What are your favorite genre and your favorite author(s)?
Elaine: I love them all. I am grateful for the gift of their creativity and talents. But everyone will IanMcEwantell you, I am an Ian McEwan groupie  (who wrote Atonement) …..as I was a Phillip Roth devotee. I treasure so many writers that I could not ever make a list.  The password for my computer is the title of a contemporary novel….

 

 

Read popular Elaine Newton book selections on Goodreads.

Check out the selected works for the upcoming Critics Choice 2015-2016 season that begins in November:

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Euphoria by Lily King
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer
Us
by Dave Nichols
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

 

Advance Book Review of a Must-read Thriller — The Pocket Wife

PocketWifeJacketCover
My first post-Thanksgiving read this year was debut author Susan Crawford’s new psychological thriller, The Pocket Wife.
As one of the first bloggers to receive an advance reader’s edition, I’m honored to share some impressions of this hard-to-put-down thriller. Susan, a fellow Atlanta Writers Club member who I interviewed on The Writing Well after news broke of her two-book deal contract with HarperCollins, has weaved a compelling tale that explores the darker side of marriage, fidelity, jealousy and mental illness.

The story opens with Dana Catrell, a wife and mother living in suburban New Jersey, who wakes up hung over with a fuzzy memory of the previous day’s events, only to learn that she was the last person to see her neighbor alive. Fending off medication for her bipolar condition to keep her mind sharp, Dana tries to piece together the events leading to her neighbor’s death, all the time wondering if there is a murderer lurking inside her.

Susan’s main point-of-view character is a woman who has been shaped by her own perceptions of herself and the world around her, tainted by a lifelong struggle with mental illness. Readers are immediately drawn into Dana’s complicated inner life, as someone with secrets and regrets — a wife who feels invisible next to her flamboyant lawyer husband, a lost mother who longs for the presence of their only child, now in college.

Readers begin to feel her hysteria…is she being stalked or is she crazy? Could she –in a drunken fit of rage – have clubbed her neighbor to death?

I followed the unfolding drama – and like any avid reader of a good book – had a hard time putting the story down the further into the book I went. The other point-of-view character is a veteran detective going through his own marital crisis as he tries to uncover the mystery. An ambitious up-and-coming assistant district attorney pressures him to close the case fast, as he fights his growing attraction for the crime’s prime suspect, whose bizarre behavior paints her as the likely culprit.

I recommend everyone pre-order this novel, which is a great who-done-it with an unorthodox lead character who is as flawed and as complicated as they come. The characters are vivid and raw; the writing and pacing strong. There is very little that I didn’t like about this debut novel, though I have to admit I figured out who did it before the climactic ending (an annoying tendency I have when watching movies, too).
The Pocket Wife will be generally released this March, and I believe it’s got a great shot at being optioned for the Big Screen. I can easily envision Julianne Moore in the lead.

Author Q&A

Author Susan Crawford

Author Susan Crawford

Before I conclude this post, I asked Susan to explain a little bit about her writing process and what surprised her most about her characters’ journey. I hope this additional commentary proves helpful to readers as they decide whether to make The Pocket Wife a must-read novel for 2015.

Q. How did you come up with the title?

Susan:  The way I came up with The Pocket Wife’s title is kind of funny. I called my workaholic husband, who was at work of course, about something fairly important. “I can’t talk right now,” he whispered in this annoying, urgent voice. “I’ll just – I’m gonna stick you in my pocket for a second,” and he did. All I could hear was the rustling sounds of his pocket insides so I hung up and tossed my cellphone back into my purse. “I’m nothing but a pocket wife,” I snarled, and then I thought. Hey. Wait. The Pocket Wife! And that became the title.


Q. How were you able to create such a believable main character struggling with bipolar disorder? Did you draw on your own life experience?


Susan:
To a large extent I did draw on my own life experiences when it came to understanding Dana and presenting her to readers. I think all of us have moments when we teeter, when we feel on the brink, when we feel hopeless. Dana just goes a little farther over the line. She becomes unable to function, which was, at least at one point, the definition of insanity. I have been close to people in my life that were bipolar, and that helped me to get inside Dana’s head to a degree. I have always found psychology fascinating – what makes people think and act as they do – that fine line between genius and insanity.


Q. Did the book’s characters – who seem so real – take on a life of their own in your imagination during the writing phase of this novel? What surprised you most about them?


Susan: 
Yes. The characters did take on a life of their own as I was writing the book. They always do. I could see them very clearly and see the world from their perspectives – what their living rooms looked like or their offices, what annoyed them or what made them tick. In fact, if I try to define my characters ahead of time it limits them in a way. It makes them stilted. It confines them to my idea of who they are or who they should be. What surprises me with characters is that they have a big part in how the story plays out, what direction it takes, because if they are real enough, they will do certain things and not others. They play off each other in particular unique ways because of their personalities or proclivities. When I was writing The Pocket Wife I was a little surprised to find that all the characters could justify their behavior. No matter how bizarre or wrong their actions appeared to be, they all had rational (or rationalized) reasons for doing what they did.


Q. What is your favorite excerpt or paragraph in this book? I found certain passages took my breath away in terms of their literary quality.


Susan:
Thank you for the wonderful compliment! I like this passage because I think it shows who Dana is, how she came to be where she is in a nightmare marriage, why she gave up on certain dreams. Also, this part happened in the past, so it doesn’t really give away any of the plot:


She didn’t marry the Poet because she couldn’t slow herself down. Lying beside him on the dingy mattress in that place with the broken wall, she couldn’t relax. Night after night, she lay awake, watching the rise and falling of his hairy chest, the shadows underneath his eyes, the neon light from a liquor store across the alley blinking at the sky. Like a signal, she’d told him, like a warning, and the Poet laughed. “Have a toke,” he said. “It’ll relax you. It will help you sleep,” and the poet stuffed his Chinese pipe with small soft lumps of hash. It didn’t make her sleep, though. Nothing did. Every week she slept less, walking through the downtown streets with the Poet, arm in arm, until late into the night, until his eyes were closing and he fell asleep exhausted on the mattress, leaving her to pace and write. Her classes flew by in a confusion of voices and raised hands – of papers written in the middle of the night, so brilliant, so esoteric. I think I’m channeling God, she told the Poet, her body nothing more than flesh on bones. He tells me what to say. But they didn’t understand – her professors, the other students. Only her dark poet understood, and finally not even he could catch the words that tumbled from her brain onto the page in tiny, oddly-slanted script that even she could barely read. The night he came home and found her on the roof, squatting at the edge in nothing but a slip – the night she said Jesus told her she could fly, the night she floated hundreds of hand-written pages into the winter sky over Avenue D, he’d driven her to Bellevue in a borrowed car.

________________________

To learn more about The Pocket Wife or Susan’s other writing projects, visit her author page at: http://www.susancrawfordnovelist.com/.

Relaxing Reads: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

The Writing Well is devoted to book reviews or recommendations every Sunday in May. Last year for Memorial Day I paid tribute to “Three Must Reads of the War-time Experience:”

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
War by Sebastian Junger

The post included book excerpts and author interview clips. With tomorrow being Memorial Day, I wanted to feature a work that memorably speaks to our national story.

One book emerged as an easy choice: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the exhaustively researched biography has been called “a brilliant portrayal of our best president” and “the bible of the Civil War era and of Abraham Lincoln.” I couldn’t agree more.

Kearns Goodwin spent 10 years researching and writing Team of Rivals. She does a masterful job retelling the story of Lincoln’s unlikely rise to president and his gutsy decision to surround himself with his former rivals — William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates after winning the 1860 Republican nomination. This excerpt, set on the morning of May 18, 1860, the day of the Republican nomination, perfectly captures the view of Lincoln as the undisputed underdog:

“There was little to lead one to suppose that Abraham Lincoln, nervously rambling the streets of Springfield that May morning, who scarcely had a national reputation, certainly nothing to equal any of the other three, who had served but a single term in Congress, twice lost bids for the Senate, and had no administrative experience whatsoever, would become the greatest historical figure of the nineteenth century.”

This work offers a rare glimpse into our 16th president, showing Lincoln’s ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, and to understand their motives and desires. The new president deliberately surrounded himself with individuals from differing political leanings and ideologies.  In the process, he earned the respect and devotion of his former foes.

A key player in the book is Edwin B. Stanton, who treated Lincoln with contempt  the first time the two crossed paths — during a celebrated law case in the summer of 1855. In spite of Stanton’s demeaning behavior, Lincoln offered him the most powerful civilian post –that of secretary of war– when they met again six years later. Stanton was Lincoln’s closest adviser during the Civil War and at Lincoln’s death, he uttered the famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and lamented,”There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.”

 

The popular press took note of President Obama taking a cue from his presidential idol when he embraced former political foe Hillary Rodham Clinton as his Secretary of State. Business leaders are constantly speaking to the need for creativity and specifically, diverse ideas, to drive success. Clearly, Lincoln intuitively knew a leadership principle that offers lasting lessons to our often-polarized business and political world.

Watch Jim Heath’s interview with Kearns Goodwin about Team of Rivals.  During the interview, she talks about why Lincoln is her favorite president and her view of “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film adaptation of her book. Spielberg pledges that the film will be released after the 2012 presidential election. Daniel Day-Lewis will play the lead role. Other cast members include Sally Fields, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tommy Lee Jones.   

Kearns Goodwin has said, “Once a president gets to the White House, the only audience that is left that really matters is history.”

Thanks to her painstaking biography, the political life of our most remarkable president is clearly illumined. 



The Magic of Family Ties and Memoir Writing

My five-year-old daughter was very proud of this portrait she created of our extended family.  “Make four copies and give them to Aunt Lisa, Uncle Mike, Uncle Matt and Grandpa,” she instructed me earlier this week while putting her crayons away. I chuckle now when I think of this exchange, and today I share her creation with my siblings — at least digitally.

Three of us with Dad…the growing-up years.

Family ties are a magical thing…if you are lucky, you can depend on your family in good times and bad. I’ve been very fortunate in that department; I consider my brothers and sister much more than siblings, but close confidantes. Even though my brothers live in other states, and I wish we could be together more often, I know they’ve always got my back.

Virtually all books have something to say about the powerful connection of family in shaping who we become or — in some cases — don’t become. Writing down childhood memories creates a wonderful  legacy to leave the next generation, and even those who faced painful childhoods can often heal themselves and others through their stories.

In an interview with The Economist, Secretary of the Royal Society of Literature and Literary Editor of Intelligent Life Maggie Ferguson said the best memoirs pull you in from the beginning.  “The disaster with memoir is when it sells sentiment. I think it’s a disaster if you are settling scores with other people. There has to be generous root.”

Here are two memoirs — one published back in 2005 and one coming out next week — worth a closer look:

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer — a poignant memoir about a boy striving to become a man, and his romance with a bar. A national bestseller, The Tender Bar was named one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2005.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion — to be released May 29th – is described as “a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter.” This book already is getting significant acclaim as a New York Times Notable Book.  Didion shares memories from own childhood and married life, as she reflects on her daughter’s life and on her role as a parent. She grapples with the candid questions that all parents face.

 

One Mother’s List of Must-Reads

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”                                             ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice 

How true those words are in my life…though my “library” is Amazon, sites like Goodreads and the multitude of bookstores within a 15-minute drive of my home.

We all deserve to take a break from the daily grind and to immerse ourselves in a captivating story. This Mother’s Day, I offer some of the books that have made me laugh and cry — stories that keep me up reading late into the night.

Depending on my mood, I enjoy a good biography, romance, historical fiction, or fantasy novel, as well as a smattering of Civil War narratives. I’ve listed some perennial favorites as well as a few new titles at the top of my reading list.

What books make your all-time favorite list? Share them here.

Biography

  • Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi with J. R. Moehringer, Jr. (Read my book review.)
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwi
  • Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson 

Romance  Classic / Contemporary

  •  Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers  
  • Green Darkness by Anya Seton 
  • Splendor of Silence by Indu Sundarsan  
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
  • The Orchard by Jeffrey Stepakoff (read author interview.)
  • Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypus

 

 

Historical Fiction 

  • The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara (This Pulitzer Prize winner topped my list of three must-reads of the war-time experience.)
  • 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
  • The Dovekeepers: A Novel by Alice Hoffman
  • The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe
  • One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

Fantasy   

  • The Talisman by Stephen King 
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin 
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 
  • Night Play by Sherrilyn Kenyon (Sherrilyn is quoted in my 2010 and 2011 DragonCon posts.)
 

Other Fiction

  • Midwives A Novel by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  • The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner (out July 2012)