Fall is the Time for Book Giveaways!

October is one of my favorite months and Halloween one of my favorite holidays. It’s no secret to anyone who has read my book Perfect Likeness that I am a fan of the supernatural, and having an entire month dedicated to exploring the edges of humanity and playing in the great “what if” just makes me happy. I break out the glitter pumpkins, the purple and orange string lights, and the creepy LED candles (which are much more cat-friendly than actual fire), and then enjoy an entire month of baking, soup making, and pumpkin spice having.

Fall is the perfect season to cuddle up on the couch and read, which is why I am super excited to announce a book giveaway from my publishing company Blue Zephyr Press. By clicking the link below you can enter for a chance to win a $75 Amazon Gift Card, one of three print novels (Exile by Karen Harris Tully, An Unseen Current by Bethany Maines, and Perfect Likeness by me), or a package of five ebooks: Exile and Inheritance, books one and two in the Faarian Chronicles series by Karen Harris Tully; the San Juan Islands murder mystery An Unseen Current, and supernatural romance Wild Waters by Bethany Maines; and of course, my own romantic comedy with a supernatural twist, Perfect Likeness. The contest runs through October 30th, 2016, and if you tweet about the giveaway, you can win extra entries!

Click on the image and/or follow the link for a chance to win!

Or

>>ENTER CONTEST AT RAFFLECOPTER<<

When You’re Busy Making Other Plans

There is this saying:

 

For most people, the shape of that life can be found in their daily routines, the tiny habits that carry us from waking up to going to sleep. Routines are seen as either amazing and wonderful, or soul-sucking and dreadful.

I am someone who has always resisted a routine. I wanted each day to look different than the one before it.  I wanted spontaneity and that sense that anything could happen. And yet, I fell into a routine anyway, because that is the nature of life. Work and school and other external structures shape our days, forcing us to wake up at certain times, which forces us to go to bed at certain times. The space in between carries all the usual things — taking showers, eating meals, doing chores, walking the same familiar paths of each day.

Moving to NY from LA, there were certain routines that made me feel safer. I began to go to the same places over and over again, and countered my fear of being alone in a new city by becoming a regular. There is a pub in midtown where they not only know my name, they know my order, and at least as much about my life as a casual social media friend. There is comfort in that, comfort in the familiar, in the steady rhythms of the day-to-day. Routine is just being a regular in your own life.

What I have come to learn as I’ve gotten older is that routines happen whether we consciously form them or not. And in fact, consciously forming them (or changing them) is actually really hard. Now that I have a new job, many of my old routines have been forced to change, and I’ve been in this weird in bet

ween space where I haven’t figured out the new ones yet. I keep hoping this will be a great chance to shape how each day will look with more consideration than my days before. I want to add healthier habits to my routine and break away from some older, less desirable ones. I want to take my lunch every day, and do laundry more than on a “now we really are out of clothes to wear” basis. When my friends joke about not being able to adult anymore, I really feel like what we’re saying is that the routines of life can be overwhelming. The laundry always needs to get done. The dishes always need to be washed.

And if you’re a writer, that next project is always going to be in need of more work — writing, editing, planning, marketing. Work only gets done through the careful application of regular effort. Or it doesn’t get done, because your routine doesn’t include that particular effort.

No one wants to feel like each day looks just like the last. But I think that sometimes my own resistance to that is actually doing me more harm than good. Each day DOES look like the last, because it turns out spontaneity takes its own kind of effort (and that I’m really more of a plan-ahead girl). Weeks get defined by regularly weekly activities — taking out the garbage, watching a particular weekly show, that family member that calls every Sunday, like clockwork.

I am hoping that I will be able to actually use this external change of a new job to help me build a new and improved routine. The thing about things moving along like clock work is that they move along. If you want the gears to keep grinding, you need to give them a familiar path around the wheel.

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on September 20th, 2016.

Embracing the Change

 

Like many other writers, I have a day job. I am a social worker and have spent the last four years working in child welfare. While this can be a very rewarding field to work in, it is also a very draining field to work in. Self-care is a constant challenge due to the demands of the job. When you rarely get time for lunch, it is even harder to make time for writing — which has not been good for me, or my publishing schedule.

It’s not just the hours, which are long, or the paperwork, which even the most prolific of writers would find daunting to keep up with — it’s that the constant stress leaves you so little mental energy to dig into character and conflict. Writing is work, of course, but it began to feel like more work than it ever had before.

Every writer, regardless of their outside life, struggles to fit writing into that life. Writing is a very time consuming enterprise, and much of that time is spent away from other people, and away from the maintenance of every day living. It’s hard to write and do dishes at the same time (though so easy to get dishes done when you are avoiding a particularly challenging writing session). Time spent writing is time AWAY. You have to have the time to spare (or the ability to create it).  I was running out of away time to dedicate to writing (or laundry, which was piling up on the regular). Something had to give.

So I sought out and found a new job at a mental health clinic — I will now be working as a therapist full time. What I am hoping this means is that I will have more time — and energy — for writing.

And yet, change is hard. Change makes people very uncomfortable. (As someone who helps people change their lives for a living, I can attest that most people find it at best, a frustrating experience). So even though I’m very excited for this change, I am also nervous. What if this doesn’t work out the way I hope it will? What if I start to feel burned out again? What if I don’t make time for writing in this new schedule?

Change comes with risk — it invites the unknown into your life. It leaves variables on the table that only time and experience can solve. And at this point, I’m still not sure what X will turn out to be.

It feels very much like sitting down to write a new story with only a vague outline in mind, and no real idea how it’s going to end. So you’d think I’d be used to this feeling, used to facing down the unknown. The very act of writing is the act of embracing change over and over, solving for x time and time again. Writing is meant to be uncomfortable and challenging, or else it wouldn’t also be rewarding. Change, like writing, is hard every single time. It also is the only way that something new, and potentially amazing, can happen.

Here’s to opening the door and inviting in the amazing!

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on September 8th, 2016.

The First J.M. Phillippe

Earlier this month, Bethany Maines shared the question so many authors struggle with: “what other authors are you like?” As the Olympics finishes up this week, it’s pretty obvious that comparison is inevitable for anyone in the public eye — particularly women (as the journalists covering the Olympics seemed to only know how to talk about female athletes in relation to male athletes). This is why Simone Biles is my new favorite role model:

 

Because when it comes to describing my writing style, or even trying to find the right mixed-genre combo to describe my first novel, Perfect Likeness, I am often at a loss. “I write like me,” I want to tell people. Unfortunately I am not a household name yet and thus can’t compare myself to only myself. (I may need some writing equivalent of gold medals first.) I have to try to find someone that is writing like me, who people like, to compare myself to. Preferably a best selling author so that people think “oh yeah, I love that person!” and then, you know, buy and read my book.

We can’t all be Simone Biles. Or J.K. Rowling. Or Stephen King. Or “put your Big Name Author here”. In fact, most authors I know in real life are pretty happy to be in the competition at all. We’re not looking to medal — we’re just hoping to get one or two (hundred, if possible) devoted fans.

The other big issue with “who are you like?” is that it taps into one of my biggest insecurities as a writer: that I don’t have a unique voice (or a unique story). Look, at this point, three out of five people I talk about my plots with pipe up with something along the lines of “it’s just like that other book/that movie/that video game/that song/that esoteric piece of art I did my PhD thesis on.” (Okay, maybe not that last one, but wouldn’t that be cool!?!) The “It’s All Been Done” record (go ahead and cue the Barenaked Ladies song) playing in my head is responsible for at least 60 percent of all my anxiety-filled blank-page moments.

The LAST thing I want is to write something just like any other book, or just like any author (yes, even the best selling ones). I have fought long and hard with myself to come up with something that didn’t sound to me just like everything else I’ve read. In fact, the biggest reason I write is because I don’t feel like I have read anyone else quite like me.

Which sounds great — all the way up until you have to market your book and someone asks you “what else is this book like/what other author are you like?” Because unlike gold medalists, there are A LOT of different authors and books, and people want some sort of sense of what they are going to get themselves into before committing 300 plus pages to a story.

What this means is that the writer part of myself is often at odds with the marketing part of myself. The writer part of myself wants to jump genres and experiment with writing style and format. The marketing part of myself wants to create a brand that people will recognize so that they can say, “oh, that’s a J.M. Phillippe kind of book.” The marketing part of myself knows that it takes more than a single event to make a gold medalist; there are years of dedicated practice behind that moment. There are hours and hours (and yes, even years) of constantly working at it for most writers to become Big Name Writers. And an essential part of that work — however much we may hate it — is creating a Big Name Brand.

I don’t have a good answer for this constant push and pull between these two sides of myself (but I do have a great recommendation for a comic by Nick Seluk called The Awkward Yeti, featuring Heart and Brain, which basically sums up my eternal struggles against myself perfectly):

 I think the struggle is going to be a constant one. And nothing brings it to light more quickly than someone asking me what other kind of writer I am like. I always have to fight the urge to say “I’m the first J.M. Phillippe.”

But maybe someday, I will be the author that others compare themselves to.

This blog post is from The Stiletto Gang blog, posted on 8/16/16.

The Perfect Soundtrack

Living in New York City, headphones are a necessity. They not only help you pass the time on long commutes, providing your own soundtrack protects you from the more…natural soundtrack of life in the city. I like an up beat while walking to work, something that quickens my pace to keep time to it. Mellow music makes a bus ride home nice and reflective.

Progress notes, the bane of every social worker’s existence, are made tolerable by a lovely oldies playlist I can sing along to. Even housecleaning, a chore I have loathed since childhood, can be gotten through best with a good music mix.

And there is not a single novel, story, or even blog post I haven’t gotten through without a playlist. In fact, my first novel, Perfect Likeness, pulled heavily from the music I was listening to as I wrote it. Sometimes, finding the perfect song can make or break the chapter I am working on. If I want to write something fast-paced and action filled, heavy bass and little words helps me find the right flow to move the scene along. Songs that make me sad help me get in the right head space for those moments in a story where I need to go deep.

Music is the only actual cure I know for writer’s block (besides not leaving the blank page until there is something, however bad you may think it is, on it). I have been known to put down a song lyric as a starting point, a way to get the creative juices flowing. In fact, some stories owe their existence to a lyric I couldn’t get out of my head.

I used to collect soundtracks, back when people would still buy CDs. I loved them because they were carefully curated playlists that helped move a greater story along. Some of my favorite movies are also my favorite soundtracks: Dirty Dancing, O Brother Where Art Thou, Singles, Forest Gump — just to name a few. Without their soundtracks, those movies wouldn’t even exist, and certainly not stand out in our minds the way they do.

Books don’t come with their own soundtracks, though I often think they should (if the copyright issues could be worked out). If you had to pick songs to go with the book you are currently writing or reading, what would they be?

*Originally published on The Stiletto Gang blog on July 19th, 2016.

The Vortex of Public Opinion

I have this phrase stuck in my head: “thrust into the vortex of public opinion.” It is a misquote from a long-forgotten class I took while studying journalism. I know it’s a misquote because thanks to that degree (and everything I learned about citing sources), I knew I couldn’t just repeat that phrase and not look it up. Thus, I slid down the Wikipedia rabbit hole on the definitions of libel and defamation, and more specifically, what makes someone a “public figure.” I won’t bore you with the court cases —Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974); Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967); Associated Press v. Walker (1967), and Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988) — or the actual quote (I was pretty darn close for a 15 plus year memory), but why I keep thinking about it: in the modern era of social media, is it time to update the definition? Are we not all, to our friends/fans lists in the hundreds (if not thousands, if your social media game is really on), “thrusting ourselves into the vortex of public opinion”?

Because as various news stories break, everyone seems to jump in to say…something. Sometimes what we say is very personal, and very connected to the big stories trending on Facebook and Twitter. And sometimes we don’t know what to say — so we say that we don’t know what to say. Sometimes we push forward a quote or meme and let that speak for us. But it seems that once we’ve entered these semi-public (or fully public, depending on your privacy settings) spaces, the one thing we can’t do is not say anything at all. Not just writers or journalists or other actual public figures — most everyone seems to feel this need to weigh in, one way or another.

And yet, weighing in is fraught with its own peril, thanks to comment sections and reposts. Many celebrities have learned this the hard way, and none too few private citizens as well, as they have actually been fired over things they have posted. Other people have found friendships ruined over social media posts (with online unfriending translating to real world unfriending), and still others have found themselves living the reality of the quote:

With all of that in mind, I often find myself hesitating before also entering the vortex of public opinion. I have become increasingly aware over the years that we are all on the cusp of being actual public figures — and as a published author, I likely have already, legally speaking, crossed that line. What we say has real world consequences, and the more we enter the public space, the less protection we have thanks to laws designed to preserve freedom of speech.

Even more than the legal ramifications, I worry about becoming a target. Online harassment and cyber-bullying are very real, and if someone garners the attention of certain groups, they may face extreme levels of it, including doxing (having your personal information such as phone numbers and addresses posted online), and even swatting (sending police or other officials to someone’s home through anonymous tips about bomb or other threats).

More, there is that thing that happens where our online interactions with people often out-number our in-person interactions with people, and what you post is also what people assume you are. I often find myself trying to view my various online spaces through the eyes of an outsider and try to figure out who they might think I am. From a marketing standpoint, I want to make sure that my public persona is “on brand.” From a safety standpoint, I want to make sure I am not opening myself up to the vortex, to that crazy unknown where one post or share could send me whirling in a direction I could never have imagined going in. I am responsible for my words, sure, but while I can own my intentions, I have no idea exactly how what I write may impact my readers. More often than not, I find myself not posting anything at all.

But the thing is, a huge part of selling a book is about selling yourself as an author, and not posting doesn’t actually help me. I should post more — I know that. But it’s a scary vortex out there, and I find myself teetering on the edge, hand hovering over my mouse, taking a moment before I hit “post.” Because the Internet never forgets.

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on June 20, 2016. 

Fit to Write

In 1988, a group of advertising execs created possibly the greatest, most influential fitness campaign slogan ever:

An entire generation, MY generation, has been living by these words of wisdom ever since. Or, at least aspiring to. Want to get good grades in school? Just do it. Want to learn to play guitar? Just do it. Want to see if you can eat an entire bag of cookies in one go? Just do it. Whatever it is you want to do, just go on out and do it.

Do an internet search on writing, and you’ll find much the same advice:

Writer’s write. The end. Want to be a writer? Write. Want to become good writer? Write more. Want to become the greatest writer that ever lived? Write, write more, and then write some more after that.

The doing makes you the thing. Runners run. Swimmers swim. Competitive food champions eat lots of food in really short amounts of time. Writers write.

If only it actually were that easy.

What the ad execs were getting at (in an attempt to sell shoes and other various fitness apparel) is that there really should be no excuses between you and the thing you are setting out to do. “Just do it” cuts through any possible block you could put up. “I don’t have time” becomes “make time.” “I don’t have the right equipment” becomes “get the right equipment.” “I don’t know what to say” becomes “say anything, keep saying anything until it becomes something, and then say more about that.”

There is — or there should be — nothing that keeps writers from writing. Like running, swimming, and sure, probably competitive eating, daily practice is the key. Just do the thing. Just write.

People obviously underestimate just how creative writers can be in coming up with excuses why they can’t, in fact, just write.

I have had some of the best naps of my life starting about 20 minutes after I sat down to write, because something about the process suddenly makes me super tired. The amount of resistance I have to the actual doing of writing is tremendous, so much so that it often takes a Herculean effort to even sit in front of my computer for ten minutes. It’s as if I am a beginner runner trying to convince myself I can make it through this one lap, or this next minute, without stopping (or actually dying from an acute inability to breathe). In fact, I have gotten in better running shape with more ease than I have gotten through certain sections of a book — and I am not in any way, shape, or form, someone who has ever actually enjoyed running; running, like writing, is something I have only ever enjoyed have had done.

I have never been a particularly disciplined writer, relying on the sheer terror that a looming deadline evokes in me to get me through that giant cloud of resistance so that I can actually write. I don’t have great writing discipline, or, really, any writing discipline, and it frankly shocks me every time I actually finish any piece of writing. It’s almost as though I finally force myself into a fugue state, after which I have something I can maybe sort of push and prod into something else that I feel mostly okay having other people read. At some point, despite all my best efforts not to, I finally do in fact, just do it. I write.

This is less than ideal. I would love a daily writing practice. I would love to get to the point where I can sit down in front of my computer and get to work without a certain tightening of my chest, a sudden thirst or hunger, or a desperate need to just rest my eyes, just for a few minutes, and then I’ll totally knock out some pages. It’s not like I don’t know what I have to do. Nike has been telling me what to do for the past almost 30 years. Just do it. Just. Do. It.

And I’m totally going to.

Starting tomorrow.

 

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on May 17, 2016. 

Winging It

Earlier this month, fellow Stiletto Gang author Bethany Maines posted a great blog about how she organizes her novels using spreadsheets and graphs — all online! I was super impressed. And then intimidated. Because my organization of a novel looks a lot more like this:

IMG_8743I do start out trying to be super organized. I spend a lot of time procrastinating…er…pre-writing by creating elaborate systems and files that some part of me knows I will never maintain. I understand that that the more up-front work I do, the less back-end work I’ll have to do. And yet, inevitably, at some point during a writing project I find myself digging through various notebooks and poorly named Word files, trying to find that one piece of information I need to complete whatever section I’m working on. I have to scan first drafts specifically for continuity errors (like the spelling of a name), and if it wasn’t for eagle-eyed readers and editors, I’d miss small changes I made in even basic descriptions (did that room have a brown leather chair or a burgundy leather chair?). I don’t even remember to put all my notes about the same story in the same notebook.

vader organization Of course, come revision time, I then I have to backtrack and do all the work that I maybe shoulda coulda woulda done in the pre-writing process. I create a reverse outline of my chapters and sections. I make a style sheet and finally decide on a single spelling of a name (the search and replace feature in Word is very much my friend). Changes are always intentionally planned. I invest heavily in the revision process, and the story can change dramatically from draft to draft.I also only ever make it half-way through a novel outline before the drafting process takes over, and characters and plots move in totally different directions. It’s a little bit because I find outlines kind of boring, and a little bit more that if I get too detailed and figure out how it will all end, I lose interest. Generally, I never start with more than a vague sense of where I want to end up, and I find drafting it out so much more satisfying. And yet I know that an outline would probably make the entire process a lot less messy — and faster — if maybe not as spontaneous.

In many ways, starting off by winging it and then going back and organizing what I’ve written lets me discover the story in two different ways — as I write it, and after I go back and read what I’ve written. That process of discovery keeps me interested in the story, even if it is very labor intensive.

Still, I can’t help but look at the ways other writers organize themselves and wistfully daydream about my own set of spread sheets and graphs. Sometimes though, I’d settle for remembering exactly where I put that really great breakdown of the third act I thought of while on the bus two months ago. All I have to do is figure out what notebook I had with me that day…

all the things

 

Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on April 19, 2016. 

Art and the Political

There is some pretty good advice that floats around the Internet that says that fiction writers should refrain from engaging in political debates, and certainly refrain from posting blogs about their own political beliefs. The idea is that writers should strive to remain neutral so as not to take away from the fictional worlds they create (and also not to deter readers who might not agree with them from buying their books). And yet, there is an equal idea that art is inherently political, that our own politics and beliefs are not only reflected in the art we create, but should be, because we owe it to readers to speak our own truths.

In the United States, it is an election year. Politics are everywhere these days — in the news, on social media, at holiday dinners with family members you are not actually convinced you are related to, and in random conversations between eclectically dressed strangers at the store. Everyone has an opinion. Actually, they have lots of opinions, and links, and memes, and sound bites, and graphs, and polls, and when will this election be over already?

The thing is, as a writer, I also have opinions. Lots of opinions, actually. Tons and tons of opinions I would like to share with people in lovely (and hopefully well written) paragraphs and blogs.
I am trying to resist the urge. For one thing, engaging in political conversations on the Internet has never actually led anyone I have argued with to actually agree with me. Humans are hard wired to actually actively ignore information that doesn’t match what they already think thanks to confirmation bias:
And while there is also a valid argument in the fact that not only is arguing on the Internet a waste of time but is also yet another way of avoiding the kind of writing I should be doing, I do think there is some value in engaging in online discussions to some degree. But online discussions have a way of devolving into drawn out battles where each side is more determined to win than to actually consider another opinion.
Over the past few days, I have been finding myself posting more and more political things and engaging more and more with other people about the things they have been posting. All it ever really gets me is a rise in my blood pressure and an uneasy feeling that Somebody is wrong  (and the even more unsettling feeling that that Somebody could very well be me). There is also this feeling that maybe I am putting too much of my political self out there, that this goes against what I should be doing to brand myself as a mostly-likeable-and-non-controversial author. Is that a standard I should even be striving for? How much politics is too much?
And in the end, if art really is political, should I be saving my political views for my fiction (however subtly or overtly they come across)?
What do other’s think? How do you handle art and politics?
Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on March 15, 2016. 

A Villain’s Voice

For my inaugural blog on The Stiletto Gang, I wanted to make a good first impression. And then I found out on the day I was going to post my first ever Stiletto blog that I had read the instructions wrong (mixing up AM and PM in the time I was supposed to post) and that I had already messed things up.

So much for good impressions.
I’m going to go ahead and blame this on the fact that lately I have been writing a lot of villains.
 In fact, I have been writing them in first person, which means I have been spending a lot of time trying to sound, well, horrible. And it has been surprisingly easy.

See, here’s the thing —  your classic villain has really simple wants and desires. There really isn’t too much to complicate wanting to take over the world, or on a smaller scale, take all the power. They have a very clear idea of where they are in the universe — they are the ones who get what they want (or should, and will go to any lengths to do so). Heroes often have to be coaxed into action through some sort of inciting incident, but a villain is very self motivated.

Your typical bad guy has it all planned out and knows exactly what they want to do next. In fact, taking advice from a writing teacher from undergrad, I often think of stories from the villain’s perspective first, since they usually have the more elaborate plans than the heroes do. After all, they are the ones that take the actions that the heroes have to respond to.

 

Finally, villains get to be, well, funny. And mean. This is where sometimes I feel like maybe I am a horrible person, because getting into the head space of a terrible person and letting all that pent up anger and frustration out just feels so…good.
There is a reason why many actors say that playing bad guys is more fun. It’s cathartic to get in touch with your own dark side. The more evil the villain, the easier it is to slide into that space for me, to contemplate a world where my character is at the center of it and doesn’t have to think about anyone else. There is no grey area, only clear black and white, a necessary oversimplification that lets my character feel free to to the horrible things he or she does. I believe it was Jeremy Irons who said that the trick to playing bad guys is that they never actually think of themselves as bad — they are always the heroes in their own stories. They are just heroes with most, if not all, the moral ambiguity stripped away.
As much fun as it can be to slip inside the head of a true bad guy, the best part about writing villains is that eventually I get to make sure they get what they deserve. Maybe that is where the true catharsis comes in, finding a way to create some small measure of justice in a fictional world, when so often it seems to be lacking in the real world. So, here’s to all the great villains: may they get what they have coming to them.
Originally posted on The Stiletto Gang blog on February 16, 2016.