Friday, September 28, 2012

JK Rowling's CASUAL VACANCY Meets Pollyanna

Photo from Steven J. Hill via Creative Commons
JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy released yesterday. And after reading reviews of the novel I've decided that I exist in a time warp. I could introduce myself on a daily basis as "Janiel Laura Ingalls Wilder Miller." or "Janiel Anne (with an "E") Shirley Miller." In short, I was born in the wrong time period. I'm waaaaaay too conventional and old fashioned and naive and, well, delicate, for the times we live in. 

Or I might just be getting old.

According to most reviews, Rowling's new book is fine. It shows sparks of brilliance and her trademark humor. But it's also apparently rife with shallow people (read: Vernon and Petunia-wannabes, but without the So-Moronic-They're-Hilarious-ness that characterized them deliciously in the Potter series)---as well as (brace yourself) rape, drugs, abuse, and the general drek-ness of humanity's underbelly. Then it reportedly ends darkly and without any of the softened edges we came to expect from our favorite wizard's stories. And finally, assuming these reports are accurate, there's a description of a used condom that my wimpy-self could have lived without (NY Times article here. And do expect the review to be a bit on the chipped-shoulder-Hey-This-Isn't-My-Beloved-Harry-Potter side of things.)

Okay, I can't judge this book. We're talking about personal preferences here. There are plenty of folks who love grittier novels than I, and that's perfectly fine. It's why I love the freedom of expression and choice we enjoy in the free world. I certainly can't criticize The Casual Vacancy's content (especially since I haven't read it yet). Not to mention, I'm on year four of figuring out how to go from writing short articles to writing an entire novel. My novel has changed completely like 47 times, without it being anywhere near ready to publish, much less query for an agent. Writing any kind of book is miraculous, getting it published even more so. I have nothing but respect for Ms. Rowling and her endless imagination and work ethic.

But here's the thing: I LOVED the Harry Potter series. I mean, I never thought it was perfect. It had issues (Like, in Goblet of Fire, why didn't Crouch Junior simply turn one of Harry's pencils into a portkey and have done with it on the first day of class, instead of dragging him through the entire School Champion-thing to get him to the trophy portkey at the end?) But it was a pure and utter delight, and a departure from the mundane grit of reality. Harry's world was imagination unleashed and creative abandon, and it all ended well. For me it's a joyous break to immerse myself in such tales. Real life is tough and doesn't always end well. I prefer not to pound myself with that when I read for pleasure. I'd rather live in a pure unadulterated fantasyland for a few hours and escape the blech.

So, I guess I'm not sure I'll read The Casual Vacancy. Because as a dyed-in-the-wool Anne Shirley Pollyanna Laura Ingalls, I want to always associate magic and wonder with JK Rowling's name. Call me a wimp. (Not really. If you do I'll delete your comment. I'm in charge here. Kind of.) I'm fine with it. (Pretty much.) I like to keep the rose-colored glasses firmly on my nose. If Rowling writes more stories set in the Potterverse, or other books that line up with my personal La-La-Land, I'll be right there. And I'll still always be in awe of anyone who writes as much and for as long as she did on one series of books, and makes it that enjoyable for us as readers. 

Meantime, if YOU read Rowling's new book, feel free to comment and tell me what you think about it. Maybe someone will manage to talk me into snagging a copy from the library.

Happy reading, my friends! As for me, I'm off to restart Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Lalalalalalala!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Um. Oops.

So, I'm sitting here cruising the 'net this morning, and I pop over to our blog and I think, "Man! When is someone going to put up a post today? I mean, what is with us? We're all stressed or something this week. No one is posting." And then I go about my day, you know, cleaning up breakfast, checking on my sick kid, making sure my other kid who doesn't have school today is doing his massive history project instead of sneaking in a bit of Calvin and Hobbes. I start thinking about what I'll throw together for dinner. But first we need a bit of lunch, for Pete's sake! And then I pass my computer on the way to check one more time on sick-dude, and I pause to look in on our blog, because I can't wait to read what one of my pal's has written.

Annnnd, there's nothing posted.

Huh. How odd. So I think, "I should go send a message to my Gnomies. I mean, maybe one of them is sick, or hurt, or depressed. Maybe they need some help. MAYBE THEY NEED A GNOME-INTERVENTION! *GASP!* I SHALL SAVE YOU, MAEGAN AND RUSSO! FEAR NOT! I . . . " 

Then I looked at the calendar.


It's Friday.

That's . . . er . . .  my day to post.

*shades of embarrassment*

Soooo anyway. What were we talking about? OH YEAH. Embarrassing moments. Russo has a lot of them. Sure glad I don't.

(I actually have steady streams of embarrassing moments. I'm just far less willing to put them up here than Russo is. Three cheers for Russo!)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Embarrassing moment alert

One of the things I need to work on is my patience. I don’t know about you but sometimes we go full speed ahead and never slow down. Sometimes that's a good and other times, not so much.

Today I went to the store and bought hair dye. What was I thinking? I tore out the gloves and got to work on dying my hair jet black. There was no patience about my process. As a result, my hair looks ridiculous. I have streaks of brown and black.

As if that wasn't enough, I tore out the gloves from the box. Doesn't seem like a big deal but when I took off the gloves I had quite a surprise- the gloves had holes in them. So now, I have ugly hair and black spots all over my hands. The dye won't come out; I have scrubbed and rubbed my hands until they were sore. Of course, my amigo Jameses is lying on the floor laughing his toukus off at my idiocy.

My friends, the one thing that will help us achieve our dream is patience. We have to slow down and take in the process of writing, painting, or whatever it is we love.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Author Interview: Jennifer Beckstrand, Author of Amish Romances "Kate's Song" and "Rebecca's Rose"

Hi all! Today I am so pleased to present an interview I did with my very talented friend Jennifer Beckstrand. She has published two of three novels in the Forever After in Apple Lake series. The books are part of an Amish Romance trilogy, and are a delight to read. (The first two are out; the third releases in Spring of 2013, and I'm sure will follow in the footsteps of the first two. I'll let you know after I close the last page and finish sighing.) 
Right! On with the interview:

1.     First of all, Jenn, I knew you in high school, and knew you were a die-hard romantic. But I had no idea you had aspirations to write romance novels. Did you? Or was this a new thing?

I didn’t even dream of writing a book until my fourth daughter was born, although I read a lot of romances and would occasionally think, “I would change this,” or “I would write the ending differently.” So the desire to write was probably always latent within me. It took insomnia to help me discover writing. After my daughter was born, I had trouble sleeping and would make up stories to help me fall asleep.

2.     We read about your journey to writing Kate’s Song and the rest of the Apple Lake series on your original guest blog post last December (found here).  So, the Amish Romance genre was new to you. Was the thought of writing for it at all intimidating? What do you think of it now that you have immersed yourself in it?

I was incredibly intimidated at first because there are so many people out there who know a lot more about the Amish than I do—including a quarter of a million Amish people. I did a lot of research (which I dislike) and a bit of travel (which I dislike even more) and met some wonderful people. The thing that struck me the most was how normal the Amish people are. They have hopes and dreams like anybody else and are just trying to navigate this life the best they know how. I used this discovery as the basis for my books. A good love story, well told, in any setting, will always be in demand.

3.     You went and visited an Amish community, and I know you have Amish readers for authenticity in your stories. I don’t know much about the community, but feel like your books are very authentic. What do you think are some misconceptions people have about the Amish community?

There are many different Amish settlements, and just as many different ways of doing things. Some people think the Amish live in very repressive communities, but the Amish I met in Lancaster County, PA were very devout and very happy. They do their best to live their religion.

4.     Are there other categories in Amish fiction besides Romance?

The most popular genre right now is romance, with many subgenres. I recently read about an Amish vampire book. (Nope, you won’t ever see an Amish vampire story from me. Werewolves? Maybe. Go, Team Jacob!) There are other Amish books out there, many nonfiction titles written by people who left the Amish community. I am currently reading The Amish in Their Own Words, which is a bit dry, but extremely informative.

5.     Before your books I had no idea there was an entire genre devoted to Amish Romance. Why do you think there’s a demand for it now? What do you think people are looking for in it?

Amish romance fits into the Inspirational category. A lot of people read Christian fiction for an uplifting message. Many read it because they want a romantic story without all the sex. I think people read Amish specifically because they love the idea of the simple life. In a world of cell phones, computers, and cable, people like to step back to a simpler time where family and faith are most important. And, of course, everybody loves a happy ending.

6.     I have read Kate’s Song and Rebecca’s Rose. And though I don’t generally read Romance, I really enjoyed these books. I find your writing style to be lovely and peaceful. There was enough conflict to put me on the edge of my seat, and I felt immersed in the Amish community. I also really enjoyed your characters and felt they all had really distinct personalities. Did you base any of them on people you know? How did you develop your characters? Did you find them or did they find you?

Thank you! Many of the characters in my books are based on people I know. It’s so much easier to picture a person in my mind and think: What would they do in this situation? In Rebecca’s Rose, Levi is based off one of my daughter’s old boyfriends. She called me up after reading the book and said, “I totally recognized my old boyfriend in Levi.” The old boyfriend doesn’t read much Amish, so he will probably never know what an inspiration he was to me.  I also based Aaron in Kate’s Song on someone I know, but he is quite a disagreeable character so his real life identity will forever remain a mystery.

I create most of my characters from scratch and I find that whenever I suffer from crippling writer’s block, it is usually because I don’t have a good handle on my characters. Sometimes, it’s really hard to get inside their heads.

7.     I loved how the main characters from Kate’s Song had cameos in Rebecca’s Rose even though the second book wasn’t about them. I imagine that will happen again in the third book. That’s a nice way to do a trilogy—having it based on setting, and not necessarily the same story or characters. Where did that idea come from?

My agent wanted me to write a three-book series, but I am frustrated when I must read all three books in a series in order to get a satisfying ending. That’s why I didn’t read Hunger Games until all three books were out. So I populated Apple Lake with delightful people and had them pop up now and then in each book.

8.     It seemed to me that you wrote these stories very quickly, once you got started on them. What’s your writing process like?

Eek. I wish I were fast. I am still trying to come up with the ideal writing process. Right now I have a goal of 10,000 words per week. I have only actually met that goal once. Ever. It is impossible to write on Saturdays and Sundays because my family wants me to pay attention to them, but I try to write most every other day. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I mostly write from the time the kids leave for school until the time they get home—unless the grandbaby comes over, and then I play with him. As you see, my writing process lacks structure and discipline, but I somehow manage to get books written.

(Sidebar: Um, yeah. This actually sounds very structured and disciplined to me. My current weekly goal involves a lot of not watching Downton Abbey reruns online.)

9.     Will you write more for the Amish Romance genre, or are you going to branch out?

I am currently writing another Amish series called The Matchmakers of Huckleberry Hill, which is loads of fun. After that, I might branch out into historical Westerns, because I love cowboys.

10. Any advice for up and coming writers, with regard to process, publishing, or promoting? Anything you’ve learned that particularly sticks out for you?

I love dispensing advice! If you are a beginning writer, the first thing I recommend is to learn your craft. Good writing will always be noticed by agents and editors. 

How do you learn your craft? Join a writers group like Romance Writers of America or find a critique partner. Attend writing conferences. Read books on writing. Write, write, write every day.

If you want honest feedback on your writing, enter a writing contest. Even if you don’t win, the judges should give you some valuable pointers on how to make your story better. 

I’ve heard that the best thing someone can do to improve her writing is to read. I wholeheartedly agree. Read good books of all genres. Even reading poorly written material can help you recognize and avoid mistakes. Volunteer to judge a writing contest. You’ll see lots of things you would do differently. 

Self-promotion can be incredibly time consuming. I use Facebook and have a website, but I don’t twitter, and I try to limit my time online.

Facebook: Jennifer Beckstrand Fans

Thanks Jennifer! Now all y'all go out and buy, or borrow, or, here's a thought: buy, Kate's Song and Rebecca's Rose, so you can learn all about the Amish and feel all puddle-y and romantic. And Dudes (of the male persuasion)! Fear not your inner mushyness. This is highly readable stuff. And we'll only respect you for branching out.

Cheers, dears!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Learn from the hard times and keep going

One of the things I keep hearing during the tennis US Open is that an athlete needs to have selective amnesia. The race to your dream is a draining and thrilling adventure. There will be highs and there will be lows but you as a dreamer need to have selective amnesia.

You have to learn from the rejection and move on. Sometimes this task is draining in and of itself. One thing remains-you're gifted beyond measure. If anyone can focus on the good and forget the bad moments it's you.

 Keep striving, keep working. I'm behind you all the way, my friends.

*We're thrilled to announce that the author Jennifer Beckstrand will be guest posting for us on Friday. So excited to here from her.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Perfect Way to Smash Your Gnome

Gnome-Smashing Tip of the Day: Whatever you do, do it like you did it on purpose.

I've got a kid who wears the most whackdoodle clothing combinations I've ever seen. Like, Lady Gaga calls her for fashion tips. Got a lovely pearly grey sheath? Pair it with construction-cone-orange wellies. Find a narsty 1970's print midi skirt at the thrift store? Plunk down three dollars, then ratchet that baby all the way up to your armpits, throw a belt around it, slap on a cropped jean jacket, and voilá! I don't know what you have, but it's totally cool. Especially paired with the India-beaded stilettos you also picked up for two-smackers. Can't decide which of three sweaters you're going to wear today? Wear them all! What the heck! And throw on two different necklaces. And then roll your jeans up to your knees because . . . just because!

And it will all work. Do you know why? Because you're wearing it like you did it on purpose. That is how my kid gets away with it.

And guess what else this little attitude works with? Everything. By watching this child, I've figured out that when you make a big social blunder *cough* rip the ballet barre off the wall *cough*, cook scary food for guests, blow a public performance, or write something completely pitiful--if you just shrug, smile, and breathe, most people will either forgive you, or start copying you. And it's all cool.

Life's too short to get all self-conscious and worked up about things, I think. We're all people. We just want to succeed. And I don't think any of us really wants the other guy to fail. At least not nice people. And most people are nice.

So that's my message to you today by way of my cool kid: Whatever you do, do it like you did it on purpose. And smile. If it doesn't put people at ease, it will make them wonder what you're up to. And that's almost better. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I got kicked out of a ballet studio

Life is all about being brave and conquering fears. You've probably heard your momma tell you to try new things. This is all well and good but lemme tell you, there are something’s that just shouldn't be tried. This weekend I went with my sister to a ballet class. What should've been a relaxing hour of stretching your limbs turned into an hour of chaos.

I'm 6'2 with long legs. I've never been graceful. Usually when I meet someone for the first time I make a great first impression by tripping over my own feet and collapsing to the floor. This time was no different.

I walked gingerly into the ballet studio. I was nervous as all get up to meet my teacher. The instant I meet her I scuffed my feet on the wooden floor and fell right on my butt.

The teacher gasped all dramatically about my lack of grace and said, "My dear, walking should not be a challenge."

Everything about this woman was pointy, her hips, her nose and her fingers had no soft cushions of flesh. She had a harsh attitude and worse of all; she was out to get me. She had us all line up on the bar.

I immediately pulled out my hand sanitizer and got things un-germified (If that's a word.)

She snagged my hand sanitizer and the class stretched and dipped in ways I never thought possible. I attempted to mimic these movements but I looked as graceful as a rooster in a tutu.

The more I made mistake after mistake, the more my teacher became instilled with the dream of making me graceful. If I moved the wrong way, she wacked my butt with a fly swatter. No joke, a fly swatter. Yeah, if we lived in a time period where human sacrifices where still allowed, I would have thrown this woman into the volcano pit. She was that menacing.

The more the hour went on the more I made this woman crazy. She kept plucking along and as it has it, I did walk a bit more gracefully. I became aware of my surroundings. I did a demi-dip (no, this isn't a real ballet term; I made it up to annoy her.)She half-smiled at my mediocre progress. The boney woman believed the fly swatter had gotten through to me. Bo,y was she wrong.

The last five minutes of the class I accidently ripped the ballet bar off the wall. I then tripped over the air and sprained my ankle.

I swear, I thought her head was going to inflate and explode. She turned her head and coughed all hoity-toity-like and said, "I would prefer never to see your face again."

My sister snorted out loud and laughed so hard tears rolled down her cheeks,

My eyes opened wide with her sentence as I said, "Fine by me."

We paid for the broken ballet bar and left the studio. We treked next door for some frozen yogurt. All the while, giggling at my lack of grace.

Yep, ballet is not for me but at least I tried something new, which is the message for today. Get out there and truly live, my friends. I'm rooting you on all the way!