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The Woman Behind My Book Covers: Monika Younger

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This week on the blog I've interviewed Monika Younger. Monika designed the book covers for all three of the Dreamslippers Series novels and the poetry collection Broom of Anger. She's a joy to work with, and I've loved every single one of her designs. A professional book-cover designer with more than ten years of experience designing for the major North American publisher Harlequin, she also designs covers for indie authors. 

Lisa: You've designed covers for Harlequin, including their mystery line. How did you get started with that, and what's it like to design for that publisher in particular? Also, please share one of your favorite cover designs for Harlequin.

Monika: The mystery line I design for is called Worldwide Mystery. Worldwide Mystery is an imprint owned by Harlequin (now Harlequin/Harper Collins). I started with the publisher in 2003 when I was hired as a full-time designer in their art department. I worked for Harlequin in-house for two years designing covers for their series books (Harlequin Romance, Harlequin Presents, Intrigue, etc.) and single-title books (MIRA, HQN). In 2005 I started freelancing and retained Harlequin as my client. I work with several art directors there, and they are all amazing people to work with. Freelancing work with Harlequin is now mainly focused on Carina Press (their digital line, which covers several genres) and Worldwide Mystery. 

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One of my favorite recent mysteries (which I designed) is Brooklyn Bones. For this title, I was given more flexibility to experiment with a new look for the author. It was a fun project to work on, which took me away from the usual photographic style.
 
Lisa: Tell me how you approach working with authors. You send us a questionnaire before you begin designing our covers. Why is that an important step?
 
Monika: To represent a story meaningfully and accurately on the cover, I need to be very familiar with it. And since I cannot read all the books I design covers for (I would be reading more than designing), I have to get as much information from the author as possible--a summary of the novel, character descriptions, setting descriptions, important visual elements, themes and meanings, etc. All this helps me to figure out what is the best approach for the cover design. Once I get as much information as I feel I need, I come up with two or three cover layout options to present to the author. Usually one of the selections is approved with or without further revisions. After the front cover is approved, I design the back cover and spine to complete the book jacket. 
 
Lisa: I get compliments on the covers you designed for the Dreamslippers Series all the time. What was your goal in designing these covers? Do you have a favorite of the three? Or is Broom of Anger your favorite? How was that project different for you?
 
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Monika: Thank you. I think Bound to the Truth is my favorite. The symbolism on that cover is very powerful to me. I absolutely love it.  
 
Broom of Anger was one of my all-time favorite projects. It was my first non-fiction (poetry) cover, and I had a lot of fun with it. As you know, there were many versions considered before the final was selected, and they were all fun to do. I don’t know how else to describe it but “fun.” I enjoy designing covers--playing around with graphic elements, photography, typography--and having it all come together on the screen is sometimes still magic to me.
 
Broom of Anger
 
Lisa: What other work do you do? What's your background?
 
Monika: In the last couple of years, I have been focusing on book-cover design, as it is my favorite area of design, but my training/education is in graphic design, so I can design anything from business cards to billboards and logos. I studied Graphic Design at Conestoga College. Previous to Harlequin, I worked full-time for a greeting card company and a full-service marketing firm in Mississauga.
 
Lisa: What do you enjoy about book cover design? What makes it special?
 
Monika: Books/novels/stories are interesting, compelling, and inspiring--and the cover has to reflect those elements. I love coming up with ideas and answering the question, "How can this story be represented visually so it will compel the audience to select it/engage with it?" It's a fun puzzle to solve. I love combing through stock photography web sites, font web sites, dissecting and altering images in Photoshop--I enjoy everything about it.
 
Learn more about Monika Younger's work at www.youngerbookdesign.com.
 

Dreamslippers Trilogy

 

Upcoming Appearance: Author Reading at Ferris State University

Ferris U flyer

Personal appearances are one part of the author life I enjoy immensely, as I get to leave the writing cave and talk in person with readers and potential readers. I especially like university talks, as it's always refreshing to speak to students. I'm inspired by their energy and am always impressed by their thoughtful questions. Last year I spent a week at the University of Florida as a guest lecturer in game design classes and speaker at a summit sponsored by the school's Digital Worlds Institute. Last fall for the launch of book three in the Dreamslippers Series, I spoke at Seattle University for the third time in three years. This February I presented on a panel at the Associated Writing Programs conference, attended by many students and writing faculty. And next month, I'll be at Ferris State University in Michigan as part of the Literature in Person series.

Ferris is distinguished by a small faculty-student ratio of 1:16, which means the courses are taught by professors, not graduate students. The university prides itself on its offering of in-demand majors, more than any other school in the state of Michigan. 

My host for the event is Dr. Deirdre Fagan, assistant professor in the Department of English, Literature, and World Languages. We met back in 2001 when I was in graduate school at the University of Miami, where she was a lecturer in the composition program. We lost touch for a time, but have reconnected through the magic of social media. She's a talented teacher and poet, and it's an honor to be her guest.

If you're near Big Rapids, MI, where the college is, please come by for the event, which is open to the public. Details in the image above. Besides the public reading on April 5th at 7 pm, I'll also be a guest in Deirdre's Creative Writing class that week, which is a private event.

A huge shout-out to Great Lakes Book & Supply, an independent local bookstore in Big Rapids. They will promote the event and stock my books as well.

Wish me luck at the reading and classroom visit, and I hope to see some of you in Big Rapids!


Call for Reviews!

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 In honor of the new year, I'm offering a free book to anyone who posts an online review of one of mine on the web sites where the books are sold or discussed (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the App Store, Goodreads, etc.). So if you're new to me, this is a great time to pick up a copy of Cat in the Flock. It's the first book in the Dreamslippers Series, which has been praised by Kirkus Reviews and a whole lot of other trustworthy critics. First post your review online, send me a link to it, and then I'll send you a copy of the second book in the series for free.

 This is the standard industry courtesy granted to professional book reviewers, by the way. But today's marketplace equalizes the critics, so that a review you post online can have just as much impact as any pro's, whether you're a blogger in your spare time or just someone who loves books. A free review copy is hence not in violation of any retailer's review policy.

 Once you've posted the review, send me an email linking to it, and I'll send you a coupon code for any book of your choice from my catalog. Be sure to let me know in the email which book you want.  If you've already read book #1, or even the whole Dreamslippers Series, look over this list of my other published work, and pick whatever title suits your fancy.  

 Super-special Lewis County deal: If you're in my geographic area and we can meet in person, I'll give you a free print copy of either book #1 or #2 in the Dreamslippers Series or the poetry collection, Broom of Anger. Otherwise, due to print and shipping costs, it'll be an ebook. As an indie, I don't receive any free copies from a publisher to use for promotion. All of my books come with a cost.

 Some readers feel intimidated about writing reviews, but it's really very easy. First, if you don't like the book, feel free to send me your thoughts instead of posting them. I personally don't post reviews for any book I can't give at least 3 stars. Second, all you need to do is pick a star rating and write just one or two sentences to give your impression. Be yourself. Say what you'd say to a friend. Here's a recent review I posted of Martha Crites' novel Grave Disturbance, by way of example.

 A word of warning: Amazon recently deleted a review I posted for another author, James Desborough (read the details here). There's no way for me to know whether or not any of the reviews readers have posted about my own books have been deleted, but based on what I've heard from other writers, it's very likely. Reviews are deleted in a seemingly arbitrary, haphazard fashion.

 So there is a possibility that if we're connected online in any way, maybe even simply including your subscription to my email newsletter, Amazon's bots will remove your review. This is egregiously wrong, and it unfairly penalizes indie writers who rely more heavily on social media to get the word out about their books. Traditionally published authors have the advantage of expensive resources such as Net Galley and the like that are cost prohibitive for those of us who foot the bill ourselves. This all makes your support--as a reviewer, word-of-mouth advertiser, and social media sharer--all the more crucial.

 But hopefully, you'll be able to post your review with no problems. ;) I hope you enjoy my quirky characters and unique settings. As always, I'd love to hear from you.

 Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!


The Big, Fat Book Tour!

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 It's rare that authors are treated to headlining book tours these days, if there ever was a day when that happened. Especially as an indie, my marketing budget comes out of my own (very small) pocket. So there was no book tour for the first installment in the Dreamslippers Series, and for the second book, the tour was almost entirely virtual, meaning online-only.

 While this is all well and good economically speaking, I craved the opportunity to connect with readers in-person. We writers live a solitary existence, going through our days mainly alone, talking only to the cat. So when it's time to turn our book babies out into the world, it's only natural we'd want to interact with others.  

By the time I was ready to release the third book in the series, I'd built up enough momentum that in-person opportunities just showed up. Here's a run-down of what became my big, fat book tour for the release of Bound to the Truth.

Nia Jam to Benefit Standing Rock

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 I dance at a local studio, Embody, which has not only given me a beautiful new practice in Nia but a supportive community as well. Nia features prominently in Bound to the Truth, so when I found out there would be a Nia Jam and fundraiser, I donated five copies of the book, which were awarded at the event by raffle. Separate from the studio itself and hosted entirely by Nia teachers who gave generously of their time and talent, the jam raised more than $1300 for Standing Rock. We danced for two hours straight that night. I couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate the book's release date. It's exactly what Granny Grace would do.

Book 'n' Brush Author Event

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 Honestly, I can't say enough about how terrifically supportive the community here in Lewis County is. As an indie, I completely struck out trying to get my books into Seattle bookstores, even ones in my own neighborhood I'd frequented for a decade. But the owner and manager at Book 'n' Brush here in Chehalis have been enthusiastic supporters. They carry the whole Dreamslippers Series as well as the poetry collection, and in turn, I drive customers to the store whenever possible. It's a win-win. I felt honored to be included in their recent author event, along with others I've come to know, some of whom also have new books out.

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 Authors Julie McDonald Zander, Texie Gregory, Kyle Pratt (who wasn't part of the event but stopped in to buy books), and me.

 Book 'n' Brush is a gem of a store, anchoring downtown Chehalis. As the name suggests, they sell both art supplies and books, for a perfect mashup of creative pursuits. We had a great write-up in the local paper about the event, and The Chronicle also covered my book's release.

Human Response Network Masquerade Ball

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 My husband and I, incognito for a cause.

 A good amount of what you might call spiritual, humanitarian intention went into the Dreamslippers Series. I've written female-centered narratives peopled with a diverse spectrum of characters. I've tackled homophobia and tried to explore organized religion with humanity and compassion. I shed light on corruption in the art world and illuminated a corner of darkness that is the illegal child pornography industry. And finally, I celebrated sexual liberation and told the stories of those harmed by sexual abuse and repression. All while honoring the importance of plot and pacing, and I hope, without ever coming across as preachy. Everything I write is in service to the story.

 I always want to do more than this. I tied sales of Cat in the Flock to a donation to Jubilee Women's Center, a highly effective organization in Seattle that helps women transition out of homelessness and into independence. Here in Chehalis, I support the Human Response Network, which provides advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Masquerade Ball was the organization's first major fundraiser, done in an attempt to ramp up service in response to an overwhelming increase in requests for help.

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Copies of the books on auction.

Seattle University Talk 

 I've presented at Seattle University twice before, and it's always a pleasure to meet creative writing students there. This time, I discussed what it takes to get credits and bylines in three different arenas: books, games, and journalism. I related tales from the trenches in all three and managed not to bore them. While it feels odd to call myself a master of anything, the below slide did garner a few smiles.

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 The students asked great questions and seemed encouraged by my career transitions from one arena to another, AKA the survivor mentality that has kept me consistently employed. Props to the university bookstore for carrying the Dreamslippers Series in connection with the event, and to the creative writing program for their incredible hospitality.

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 Seattle U souvenirs: Reflections picked up for free in the campus chapel, and the student lit mag, Fragments.

 An Evening with the Authors at the Lewis County Historical Museum

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 The last in-person event on my schedule for this book launch was the only repeat for me, as I'd attended the same last year. Located in a former train depot, the museum features local history displays and a gift shop. The authors event is a great party and opportunity to meet other writers as well as new readers. Poetry seems to resonate best with this crowd.

 So there you have it: This is how we do things in indie land. My family and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house in the midst of this, so I'm hoping December is a bit less eventful? Or not. I really did enjoy myself. Welcome to all the new readers who stopped by my tables, came to the talk, or danced by my side. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


One Hot Little Reading

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On Sunday I hoofed it down to Gladstone, OR, to take part in The Other Side Reading Series, hosted by Nancy Slavin, a past guest poet on the blog. I had the pleasure of sharing the mic with Julia Laxer, whose poems have appeared in So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, Small Po[r]tions and The Nervous Breakdown. The theme was "heat," and Julia and I sizzled... literally. We were outside, the sun blazed down, and the mercury rose to around 90 degrees.

Reading

To further prove my in-synch-ness with the theme, I had my pick of tie-ins, from the opening fire scene in Framed and Burning, to the blaze of anger Mick Travers exhibits in that book, to the heat of passion in a couple of love poems tucked into Broom of Anger.

Julia

The talented Julia Laxer read about the seedy, lusty world of strip clubs, as well as traipsing through San Francisco in hot pursuit of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She has a gift for the telling detail, and I can't wait to see what she does next. Her first book is sure to be a scorcher.

Shoes

Organizer Nancy Slavin lusted after my hot shoes.

All thanks to Nancy Slavin for putting the heat on, Happy Rock Coffee for hosting, and to the Clackamas Review for this great event write-up. Gladstone's just a stone's throw from Portland, so if you're in the area for the next reading in the series on September 11, stop on by. You'll be glad. 

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Photos by Nancy Slavin, Julia Laxer, and me.

 


Introducing: Our New Press Logo

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We have a new logo for our publishing imprint, and this is it. It already appears in the Dreamslippers Series ebooks everywhere and will soon appear in the print versions, too. Here it is on the Framed and Burning paperback cover:

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...And here it is in black:

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We're quite pleased with the design, done by Monika Younger, who also designed the book covers for the Dreamslippers Series and Broom of Anger. She's super creative and fantastic to work with. I highly recommend her.

The significance of the logo is... Well, if it's done its job, that should be apparent. To me it captures the escape and freedom readers can find in books.

 Happy Wednesday!

 

 


Measures of Success: Where I Am in This Publishing Experiment

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Lately I've heard from people who assume I'm earning piles of money from my books. They tell me I make the whole publishing thing look easy, and that it makes them want to jump in.

This is a really good example of why I try never to make assumptions. 

It's funny, because I've been pretty up-front about the whole thing from the beginning, as you can read in this post on my decision to self-publish as well as this post about what it took to hit the bestseller spot in two categories on Amazon. If you don't want to read those two posts, here they are in a nutshell: 1) My decision to self-publish was borne from a cold-eyed practicality that showed me getting an agent and a solid traditional publishing contract would be as likely as winning the lottery and 2) Hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon came after 25 years of toil, and I still had to make the book free.

But I guess my previous posts weren't enough. People see "bestseller" and the fact that I'm up for a couple of major awards, and they automatically assume I'm making piles of money. And maybe it's my own fault for trumpeting the bestseller achievement, which is a big win, don't get me wrong. But because publishing today is totally broken, it doesn't mean I'm making piles of money, or even enough to call this my new day job, neither of which I have actually claimed, but people seem to assume. There's a lot of hope and fantasy-making when it comes to the life of a writer. We still want to believe we can all be J.K. Rowling, and that getting there is easy. 

Here it is for the record: My husband/business partner and I are still in the red on these books. 

And here's why:

  1. Discoverability. By at least one estimate, there's a new book posted to Amazon every five minutes. Simply getting eyes on your product remains the biggest obstacle in all of entertainment. At the video-game company were I used to work, it was of chief consideration. We did the best when we had our own portal to funnel new games to players who'd played our previous games, but the Apple store made this more of a challenge. So if I could design a Lisa Brunette portal within Amazon that sent my book promos to readers who'd purchased my books before, or similar books, I'd be in business. But that's not possible.
  2. Have you bought my books? If you did, thank you. I hope you enjoyed them. But was it the print or audiobook version (which earn me just a few cents to a few dollars in royalties), the ebook version (which earns me even fewer cents to a couple of dollars in royalties), or the free version (which earns me next to nothing in royalties)?
  3. Sales of Cat in the Flock to-date are clocking in at just under 5,000 copies, most of those free, and sales of Framed and Burning are lower because it's been $3.99 since launch with no promos and no KDP enrollment (what this is). As for my other books, there's a reason I continually refer to poetry as a "labor of love." Ditto short stories.
  4. Most of the people who downloaded the free copy during the promotion that catapulted Cat in the Flock to bestseller status haven't yet read the book, which affects my royalties via Amazon's "normalized pages read" count, and they did not buy the second book in the series. This is a well-known result for bestsellers on Amazon these days, so writers and marketers generally hope the lift will boost sales a few times as others see the book in the ranking, which did happen for a time...or I don't know what else, and neither do they.
  5. I am no pro at promotion. It's funny because I keep getting notes of admiration/offers to hire me from other authors who think I do it well, and I tell them I'm just bumbling around here, but since authors on the whole tend to be really terrible at this, I guess I look good by comparison. I am still learning how to do the book sales and promo thing, so stay tuned. Hopefully I'll get even better!
  6. Most of the friends and family to whom I've given free copies of my books haven't read them. I try not to get too tripped up about this, as it seems to be a writer phenomenon: Those closest to us tend to be the least likely to read and discuss the book (with the exclusion of my husband/business partner, who's my biggest fan; he also has a stake in the game). But it's probably because reading the words of someone you know very well can be jarring. As my sister (who is actually very supportive) said, "I hear your voice in my head as I'm reading, and it's weird." This recently happened to me with an old friend who wrote a thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect after she blurbed my thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect. I freaked out reading the first chapter and haven't been able to pick it up since. It wasn't just the voice; it was the inevitable comparison in subject matter. People you know look for themselves in your books; they can't help it.
  7. I've been very fortunate to have amazing supporters and fans who share my content, but I haven't had the time to grow my list the way I should. It's a business that is definitely more-than-full-time, like a start-up or your new local restaurant, but I have not yet had the luxury to focus on it 24/7 because I have to attend to my other sources of income. We spent this entire last weekend working on republishing both Dreamslippers books, for example, so we feel like we now need a weekend to recover from our working weekend.

We're not yet in the black, but we partners of Sky Harbor LLC invested more into the business than most indie authors, so we have more to make back. We saw this as a long-term strategy, and it's way too early to call since I've only published two books so far. The models I have for how this works didn't begin to make a living until they were into books three or four, and this goes for both the indies and the traditionally published authors. One traditional author tells me the only way he lives off his writing is through his foreign sales. His foreign publishers are also the ones who pay for his few book tours, as his U.S. publisher won't pay for any.

My approach is to be much more diversified, too. I'm currently working as a game writer, speaker, and journalist in addition to the fiction I write. I believe this is a healthier mix for these volatile economic times. But that means I'm trying to keep up with four different industry spaces, growing my contacts and experience in all of them at once. Some days, it feels like managing four different start-ups.

Overall, I'm flattered that people think I'm making a living at this, and I am thrilled with the success I've had with my fiction. With just two books under my belt, I've won one book award and am a finalist for two others. My first book hit the no. 1 spot not in some quirky niche but in two major categories on Amazon: paranormal mystery and private investigators, which, if you think about a book being published every five minutes, is a huge achievement. It's trending at 4.5 stars on 52 reviews, and the second book is close behind. I've been approached by a Hollywood director about TV rights (but don't get too excited--Hollywood is notoriously fickle). Enough readers and influencers have given their independent, non-paid praise of the books such that I know if I can surmount the hefty obstacles, I will begin to see some financial success. I've proved I am a serious career author with the speaking, marketing, and most of all, writing chops to go the distance. It's only a matter of time before the right people--and/or an army of readers--take notice. 

And if they never do, I will at least know that I gave it my all, heart and soul. Plus, look at the enviable experience I'll have to offer in my next day job...

  


This Poet Sent Me Her Book, and It's Not Even National Poetry Month Anymore

This lovely poet sent me her book

Elizabeth Tornes' award-winning chapbook.

I had just made a commitment to myself to scale back on activities (such as this and this) that don't have a chance of producing at least some kind of income. At the top of the list is poetry, which actually manages to cost me money and gets ignored when I post about it across social media (this should surprise exactly no one). Poetry had to go, or at the very least, I can only indulge in poetry during April, for National Poetry Month.

And then two things happened.

First, a woman I barely know here in town took it upon herself to a) buy a print copy of my poetry collection from our local bookstore and read it, b) give it to her daughter to read c) rave to me the next time she saw me in our dance class and d) post a review of the book on Amazon.

"Her language is perfect as it is," she writes in her review. "Each poem a wide eyed tribute to the bits that make up our lives."

Readers tend to respond to Broom of Anger in a very personal way, and I have to say these reactions have been some of the most gratifying of my career.

The other thing that happened is this: My cousin gifted my book to a poet friend of his in Wisconsin, and she liked it so much she gave him a copy of her poetry book to send to me. In the inscription, she wrote, "With admiration for your work!"

The book, Between the Dog and the Wolf, pictured above, was published by Five Oaks Press as the winner of their 2015 "Say Elves" Contest. For one of her other books (she has three), Elizabeth Tornes won first prize in the 2012 Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook Contest.

It's a lovely collection that time-warps me instantly to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where my people are from. The link of spirituality and nature also resonates with me. Here's a sample:

 The Elders

They are still with us, 

waving as oak leaves, roaring

wind through the pines. They echo

as woodpeckers hammering

hollow trees. They insist

that we remember, remember, 

remember their stories

and their long-lived lives.

Remember the hand

they gave us when we slipped,

the kind looks and words,

a balm for soothing a heartache.

 

I miss the grandmothers

who gentled me, who taught me

how to speak, and give to others.

How to go beyond the self

to hear the pulse of the barred owls

signifying wisdom,

the high-pitched songs of frogs

that lift the swamp

in the early evening,

the loon's tremulous call--

the voice of the Creator,

if we would only listen.

*

Mmm. So wonderful.

So there you have it. Poetry won't buy me groceries, but good words and a free book are great poetic karma.

One more thing: Hat-tip to my cousin Jay Halminiak for fostering poetic relationships! :)

And one ONE more thing: Happy Mother's Day!


All It Takes Is a Red Door

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On Saturday I went down to Salem, OR, for a book event with the Red Door Community. This informal network was founded in part by my husband's mother, A. Grace, who died several years ago. The members of the Red Door engage in spiritual retreats and activities together, volunteer in their community, and support each other in times of need. They were there to help Grace through the difficult process of dying, a constant, comforting presence and a source for the divine rituals she wanted at that time.

The gathering on Saturday was gracious and giving. I read from all three books, a particularly emotional activity in this case since my character Granny Grace was inspired by the woman they knew and loved. My books aren't autobiography, and the real A. Grace and Granny Grace aren't one and the same--but I think they would have been great friends. Granny Grace would surely have been an honorary member of the Red Door.

I'd asked those in attendance to bring stories about the outstanding women in their lives. I read to them this profile of Cheryl Sesnon, the latest winner of the Amazing Grace Award for Outstanding Women Over 40, who is the executive director of an organization that helps women transition out of homelessness. A few shared stories of great women, included their own Grace. But one woman brought up an excellent point: That sometimes the most outstanding thing a person can do is simply endure.

Her words struck a chord in me, as just that morning, I'd been thinking the same thing in relation to my own mother. She has not spearheaded organizations or won awards or been interviewed by the press. It's unfair to compare any two women anywhere, but I can see the greater challenges in my mother's life and honor the strength and perseverance she's had to endure so much. While our society is built to pour accolades on those who accomplish things in the measurable world, it's those who survive tough circumstances who often deserve the most recognition.

So this goes out to my mother, who pulls herself out of darkness time and again through her own faith and mettle. That deserves its own award.

 


Upcoming Events: Red Door and More

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I'm excited to tell you about two big events in March that will drag me out of my writing cave.

The first is a book event in Salem, OR. You might remember that Cat in the Flock is dedicated to my husband's late mother, the real-life A. Grace who in part inspired the character Amazing Grace in my Dreamslippers Series. She helped found a community in Salem called the Red Door. They support one another's causes, spiritual quests, and times of need and are a great model for how to build community separate from a church or other institution. These fine folk are hosting me for a reading and discussion, and I'm really looking forward to it.

The second is a major event in the field of digital gaming. I've accepted an invitation to be guest speaker at the University of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute. This is for IDEAS, the International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit. I'll be presenting a couple of times--on the topics of game-play/story integration and crafting stories for a mainstream audience--as well as serving on a panel. It should be an interesting event with game industry people from all over the world there to talk and share with students and faculty. I've served as a guest lecturer for a game design class there once before, and I can tell you they are a sharp bunch. I'm especially looking forward to the Digital Salon of student work, which I'll have a hand in judging.

Wish me luck, and if you have an idea for an event you'd like me to participate in, please get in touch!


They Picked Me Up in a Limo, and Other Car Stories

Limo

The chariot that awaited me: An early 90s-era limo that once served the White House.

While in D.C. this past week, I was the featured guest at a book event. Looking for my ride to the event that night, I stepped out of the hotel and scanned the drive-up for a vehicle befitting a middle-aged guy like my friend Brewster, the host. A fuel-efficient compact, perhaps. After all, I'd met Brewster when we were both interns in the arms control community back in '92. I completely ignored the stretch limo in front of me until a black-capped attendant popped out and said, "Lisa Brunette! Your ride is here!"

For the record, this has never happened to me before. I've never even been inside a limo. Seriously, not even for prom. In case you're wondering, my mode of conveyance then was an '80 Pontiac Grand Prix, fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.

But there was Brewster, ensconced with his fiancee Kate in one of the limo's rear-facing seats. It turned out the limo was his. The story goes that one day he went out looking for hub caps and came back with a limo instead. He'd taken Kate along to dissuade him from frivolous purchases, but she had encouraged this one.

Here's a rather blurry photo of me peeking out of it. My husband apologizes for his picture-taking skills, and since he has tremendous qualities in every other aspect of existence, we don't fault him for it. Unfortunately, though, this shot cost him his phone, which he dropped, shattering the screen.

Limopeek
 This is my limo face.

(I know, right? My hair is SO BLONDE. And if one more person says, "Your hair doesn't match your name," or something equally inane, I am going to dye it PINK. OK, not really.)

Another capped driver, Roger, squired us to the venue: A sort of compound of houses and garages on an acre of land just inside the Beltway. Several people live there in a community that frequently hosts events like my book reading. Brewster, whose last name really is "Thackeray," dubbed it 'Makepeace Manor.' The name has been printed on posters and pens.

It was a lovely crowd of about 20 all gathered around the Manor fireplace. I read from my poetry collection and both Dreamslippers novels and had a blast doing so. Because I like to make things interactive, I tapped into the group's energy, which was extraordinary and vibrant. We got into some really interesting discussions about dreams, lucid dreaming, and the edge between reality and dreaming. There was an epically long Q&A. I think I'm still there, in fact. These people asked great questions.

MPM_reading

Many of them are self-identified "burners," which is not a reference to Bernie Sanders (although a good number of them support him). It's from the "Burning Man" desert festival, which has apparently spawned smaller "burns" and burner communities all over the country. I have never actually been to Burning Man, but it's great to see people coming together for artistic collaboration and togetherness.

Incidentally, Brewster, who with five project cars filling the Makepeace Manor garage is just a bit of a gearhead, helped inspire Granny Grace's car Siddhartha from my Dreamslippers Series. Back when we stomped around D.C. together in '92, he took me for a spin in this little beaut:

Siddhartha

Of course, the above is a hardtop (sunroof), and Granny Grace's is a convertible. I loved the impracticality aspect of a convertible in a city that rains nine months out of the year, and I also have vivid memories of my father's convertible Fiat Spider, a car I'd hoped to inherit when I turned 16. But Dad traded it in for a Ford Escort just as I was taking my driving test. I could tell you that to add insult to injury the Escort was white, but I think a Ford Escort is enough injury, regardless of color. What is it that hippie folksinger Melanie used to sing? "White should be beautiful, but mostly it's not."

I'm grateful for the opportunity to introduce my work to the burners and share in their company for an evening. There's nothing better than old friends with old cars in an old town like D.C.!


My So-Called Freelance Life*, Week One: From Belly Dancing to Rosie the Riveter

View

The view from my home office is not exactly the ocean vista I always imagined. Think of it as 'American Gothic.'

On Friday, I said good-bye to my crew at the day job in Seattle and turned in all my equipment and official access cards. It had been five years, my longest stint at any one company. I shed a tear as I pulled out of the parking lot for the last time.

Or maybe not last time. I'll still have a contract relationship to work with Big Fish on games. Who knows what will happen with that as the industry continues to evolve?

I pretty much hit the ground running this first week of independence. I had a two-hour meeting on Monday with a new client and then an interview with a real 'Rosie the Riveter' that evening. Sara Bowles was a shipyard worker who got laid off during the big recession. A single mom, she went back to school, earned a degree in the energy conservation and now holds her dream job at Tacoma Power. It's one of many stories I've got on the docket for The Center of Excellence for Clean Energy.

After that, it was back up to Seattle on Tuesday to give a presentation on how marketing is all about storytelling.

My other two interviews this week? A tribal belly dance teacher, on the subject of female adornment, and her daughter, a Nia teacher, on the subject of dancing before, after, and during pregnancy. Nia, for those of you who don't know, is a joy-centered barefoot dance practice that incorporates martial arts and the healing aspects of yoga, Feldenkrais, and others, as well as established dance styles like jazz and modern. I've been practicing Nia myself since last spring and love it. And for the past month, I've been writing a weekly wellness newsletter for Embody Studio, where I dance. It's a fantastic community, and I really feel 'in the zone' on this new work.

I also submitted an application for a writing residency at Mineral School (wish me luck) and wrote articles about healthy ways to celebrate and how to cultivate a wellness practice that carries you throughout life's stages.

This all happened in the midst of continuing to battle a cough that's plagued me for weeks. And then I got some upsetting news, something personal I'm not ready to write about yet. I am focusing on the best possible outcome, though, and I have mobilized my support system.

Then, because life is a roller coaster, I found out this morning that my first novel has made me a #1 best-selling author. Read more about that here.

Next week I'm in D.C. for a book event, as well as to conduct some research for a secret project and meet up with a few old friends.

Week one of freelancing, no regrets yet! Thanks for caring.

*My So-Called Freelance Life is a book by my friend Michelle Goodman. I've reviewed it here and recommend it to anyone considering the life.


#FridayPoetry: Moving Away

Broom of Anger

Moving Away

 

I am moving away but now stand still,

searching these trees for a sign that I am well.

A flicker in the low-angled light—

a red-armpitted, ermine-robed woodpecker

bouncing slender branches 

of the white lilac tree.

 

I am used to the one-footed Stellar’s jay, 

who ambles from one feeder to the next,

and visits only when the starlings and chickadees are away

as if his pride makes him solitary.

 

I often imagine the space where his bone ends in air,

wonder if birds feel phantom limb.

To touch that place, to append him with my own flesh—

My environmental erotics.

 

Chickadees flock the feeders year-round,

black-capped like my pen. I somersault with them,

my mouth and nose a beak, feel them preen my skin under feathers.

 

The house finches warble and take turns. 

Sometimes, they pinch the vines of my hanging baskets,

but the vines aren’t for nest-building. It’s a game:

They grab slender vines between beaks and flick. 

They seem to laugh, a joke only house finches get.

 

Today, searching trees for a sign that I am well,

the foot-high, red-shafted northern flicker

rubbed his long black beak on the bark,

and yelled at the sky, 

as if it set him down in the wrong place.

 

The bird guide says, Very common.

 

This poem appears in my collection, Broom of Anger.

 

 


#FridayPoetry: August

Broom of Anger

 August

 

This summer,

the hottest day of the year,

I met my neighbor on the sidewalk.

The scarf on her head hid no hair.

She told me my errant cat

climbed through the dog door

to sit with her through long days.

We talked of tulip bulbs 

and chemo.

I had just returned 

from a cold movie theater.

When we hugged,

my hands on her hot skin felt cool. 

The heat of the day made us part,

she to her living room A/C.

 

I have not seen her in months.

Her house sits on a hill,

the windows an empty stage.

A Mylar balloon has pledged 

Get Well for weeks,

the message now deflated.

 

The front garden has gone to seed,

the dandelions triumphant,

a bag of mulch unopened.

What was she going to do 

with the empty whiskey barrel, 

turned now on its side?

There’s no one left

to keep the weeds at bay.

 

This poem appears in my collection, Broom of Anger.

 

 


Welcome to the Flock.

Lisa Brunette_Author

This is the web site for Lisa Brunette, award-winning author of the Dreamslippers mystery series and other works. 

Stay up-to-date: Sign up for Lisa's newsletter for the latest news, plus fun giveaways.

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What People Are Saying

"Clearly author Lisa Brunette has a genuine flair for deftly crafting a superbly entertaining mystery/suspense thriller." - Midwest Book Review

"The launch of an intriguing female detective series." - Kirkus Reviews

“Lisa Brunette’s Framed and Burning is a brilliant, suspenseful whodunit…” - Qui Xiaolong, Author of Shanghai Redemption, named one of the Wall Street Journal’s Best Books of 2015


Why Is It So Hard to Finish?

  Writing wall
Revision notes for Framed and Burning. This was after I received BETA reader feedback and needed to revise the draft.

At last month's meeting of the Lewis County Writers Guild, we chose our programs for the year, starting with a list of brainstormed interests and then voting on our top picks. The most popular topics were 1) finishing drafts and 2) making a living as a writer.

These would seem to be in obvious conflict with each other, for if you can't finish the draft, you're a long way from making a living as a writer. But the group is the affable sort, its members up front about their own strengths and weaknesses. Thus "finishing drafts" garnered more votes than the latter.

I have to admit, this surprised me. I had not had occasion to think about it before, but I guess I'm what you'd call a "finisher."

It took me two years, but I finished my first novel around a demanding day job that required me to put in sometimes as many as 70 hours per week. I did it by using every three-day weekend and all of my vacation days to write and revise. This was a sacrifice, and I had the support of my husband and stepson, or I could not have done it. I also saw my friends a lot less and gave up fun Seattle activities, such as happy hour and live theater shows. 

For my second novel, I rearranged my life drastically in order to make space for both writing and the business of writing. I stepped down from management, scaled back to 32 hours per week (with a commensurate cut in pay and benefits), and moved to a small town where I could buy a house with room for a home office. Of course, things don't always go according to plan. The day job demands have sometimes meant I end up working 40 hours in four days so that when Friday comes, I'm pretty exhausted.

But the struggles and small sacrifices aside, I finished a draft of my second novel in only two months. I got up at 6 am and finished my day job duties by 3 or 4. Then I shifted over to the novel and worked till I went to bed that night, stopping only for dinner. I used Fridays to write, and I took a much-needed break from social media. I also wrote every weekend. I got to 90,000 words in record time.

But this isn't something I'd recommend. Sitting that much, as science has told us, isn't good for us

Part of the reason I pushed myself so hard is because I was passionate about the project. It had to come out. And I would say that if you aren't passionate about what you're writing, then of course you won't finish it. Why would you? We writers come to this because we have something burning inside us to share with the world. And if you aren't feeling that, then simply being able to check off the "done" box won't drive you to the page.

There have been projects I never finished, but it was right for me to abandon them: A novel I started in the summer of 2002. Another I began in the summer of 2003. When I look at both drafts now, I don't feel the passion in them. They didn't need to be finished the way other works have. Knowing when to abandon a project is key. I never think of these as losses. It was good practice, writing them.

I also have a finished manuscript I'll forever keep in a drawer: the memoir I wrote between 2006 and 2008. My agent at the time couldn't even get through it, it was so dark. But that writing wasn't wasted. It was a powerful catharsis, at the very least.

And I have one long-term project, a magnum opus of sorts, that I've finished half a dozen times in various incarnations, as a short story collection and then a 'novel in stories' and most recently as a straight-up novel. I might be periodically doing what amounts to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, or perhaps it will end up being my greatest work. I could also end up abandoning it for good. But for now, the passion is still there, just not the understanding of what to do with it. And that's okay. I've got plenty of other works to sustain me in the meantime.

So here are my first couple of tips on finishing:

  • Write where your passion is. Don't sit down to write a romance novel just because you think the genre sells. But if you read romance novels and think you can write them better, that's great! I chose to write mystery after working on the story lines for more than a hundred games in the mystery genre, reading mystery novels, and interviewing a crew of popular mystery authors for a magazine.
  • Don't be afraid to abandon a project if you can't finish it. All writing is practice, and if you've lost the passion for your novel, maybe it was just your warm-up draft. Do not read this as failure. All writing practice is useful.

The other reason I pushed myself to write 90,000 words in two months has to do with that other topic the Writers Guild chose to explore this year: making a living. My goal is to be a self-supporting independent writer by this time next year. That's a hell of a motivator, let me tell you. It makes me nervous just to write that here, because what if I fail? But I have a good plan in place for how this will happen, and writing it down is part of my goal-setting.

There's one among us in the Guild who's already making a living as an indie novelist, and you can see how he set the goal and then achieved it, his focus undeniable, his passion palpable.

At the day job, I spent five years on nothing but finishing things. Our deadline-driven, high-volume work was so focused on finishing that I had to design a digital queue to manage the projects and then hire a team to complete them all. My team routinely finished rewriting games with content equivalent to your average novel in about a week's time. When your job's on the line, you finish.

And that's the same level of urgency, I believe, that it requires to get to the finish line as a writer. Otherwise, your writing is what amounts to a hobby, something to be done at leisure, for the sole pleasure and enjoyment of the activity. And that is more than okay. It's wonderful, in fact.

Which brings me to these tips:

  • Consciously decide what your intention is. If you want to earn a living at your writing, that will lead you down a different path and set of choices than if writing for you is a hobby or sideline. For example, if you are a poet, you are not going to make a living at your writing. End of story. But like I said, that's more than okay. A great many writers would actually be happier if they relaxed and accepted their writing as a hobby. Writing and publishing my poetry collection was 100 percent a labor of love.
  • Set realistic goals either way. For my third novel, I've set a goal of getting to 20,000 words by the end of October. I'm at 2,800 words currently. That's a bit more reasonable than finishing a novel in two months around another job, and this will be better for my health and sanity, too.

If you're new to writing as an activity, which means you haven't actually done a lot of writing in your life, then you will need a great deal of training and practice, and that should be your mini-goal. While I completed a first draft of my novel in only two months, that was the tip of the iceberg you're seeing. What's underneath the water? Training through my English bachelor's degree, a certificate in writing, and a Master of Fine Arts in writing. After that comes my twenty-five-year career as a writer, editor, narrative designer, and teacher of writing.

I'm not saying you have to have all or any of that to be a writer who finishes drafts, but I suspect that a good deal of "not finishing" comes from encountering problems while writing and letting that stop you. Knowing how to tackle problems on the page takes instruction, training, and experience. And that definitely helps you finish!

Here's my last two bits of advice:

  • If you don't have the experience or training, get it. But if a degree program is not in the cards for you, there are lots of other ways to get the training you need, such as feedback groups, how-to books, conferences, workshops, and so on. There's an endless pool of resources available to you. In fact, a lot of writers end up making their living telling other writers how to do it. Beware that pyramid scheme, but do get the help you need from reliable sources.
  • Know what helps you finish other things in your life, and use them. I started off this post with a photo of the wall in my studio, which I've covered in clear whiteboard paint. I'm a list-maker and a visual brainstormer, and I know I have to see it "up on the wall" to get it finished. But for you, it could be something else.

Now let me turn this over to other writers out there: How do you finish? Please share your thoughts, tips, and techniques.


#FridayPoetry: The Open Door

BROOM OF ANGER thumb

 

The Open Door

 

You collect the dead bees 

in my studio, pinching delicate wings 

between thumb and forefinger, 

placing each still pantomime 

on the window ledge. 

 

They come in through the open door 

on warm days 

but stubbornly nudge fuzzy heads 

against the skylight glass, 

pressing, probing for a way out, 

finding none.

 

They don’t see that freedom is easy:

Just fly back through the open door. 

 

One died clinging to the curtain. 

It looked alive; you jumped 

when it fell at your touch. 

A honeybee, pockets of golden pollen 

saddlebagged at its sides. 

You set it next to the yellow jacket 

whose antennae have already dried 

in curls around its head. 

 

We find them buzzing

against the glass, 

wild blue yonder 

just out of reach. 

 

I pop screens, 

coax them through the window. 

You scoop them with a water glass, 

carry them through the open door.

 

This poem appears in my collection, Broom of Anger


Anger in the Healing Process

Lisa Brunette_Author

Today I have a guest-post up on Chris Michaels' blog - please check it out. Michaels is the author of The Power of You. I first heard him speak on a podcast and felt an instant kinship. I'm excited to feature a post from him here on Cat in the Flock next week, so check back for that!

My subject for his blog is anger:

Many of us aim for the spiritual ideal of the calm, serene, monkish enlightened one who reacts to every situation with never-ending grace and acceptance. We imagine Jesus this way, for his “turn the other cheek” teaching, and the list goes on: Buddha, Mother Teresa, Ghandi. You could even add Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon to the list.

But this is exactly the wrong approach for many of us who’ve been marginalized and oppressed through sexism, racism, homophobia, or other negative patterns of behavior.

I appreciate how Chris teaches people the power of knowing when to say no, which dovetails nicely with my thoughts on how important anger is in the healing process. It's a subject that formed the basis for the poetry in Broom of Anger.

I invite you to join our discussion here, on social media, and on Chris' awesome blog.


Why Anger? Why Now?

BROOM OF ANGER 1890x2880

My debut poetry collection will be released on August 1. You can pre-order it right now! And please do pre-order it. That will give the book a huge boost on August 1, and if there's one thing poetry needs, it's a boost.

Perhaps you're wondering "Why anger?" Here it is straight from the horse's mouth (the horse being me, talking about myself in third person). This is the official book description:

Taking a cue from Zora Neale Hurston’s advice to “grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear,” Brunette explores the galvanizing quality of anger in this powerful debut collection. Anger can spark revolutions—both political and personal. It is the kernel of healing for anyone who’s been marginalized or silenced. But the poet wrestles with anger’s consuming nature, yearning for both spiritual and romantic release.

Anger has been a huge project for me as an adult. Knowing when to tap it and how, and when to let it go is one of my life's ongoing lessons.

The collection itself is the culmination of about twenty-five years' work. Some of the poems I wrote in my early twenties as a political activist, and others I penned as late as 2009, when going through a divorce. You can read some of them here on the blog, as they've formed my #FridayPoetry series.

A large chunk of these poems--11 of them--were previously published in literary journals. For the poem "For Father," I won a William Stafford Award. I also received a major grant from the Tacoma Artists Guild for the work when it was in progress in 2003.

So it's been a long haul, but the poems are ready now to be whisked out into the world. Some of my readers have already been swept away. (See what I did there?) Here's one endorsement:

“Every time I read Lisa Brunette’s poems (which is as often as I can), I find myself racing to read more, faster. It’s all so great, I want to binge on every word. But I force myself to slow down, savor the experience of each individual poem. Wait for my spine to stop shivering, my breathing to even out. For each poem is its own being, packed with enough emotional resonance to be a tiny, spare novel or essay on its own, full of insight—lyrical, gorgeous, political, haunting—and when combined together in this book it is the poetry of my hopes and dreams.”

Lisa Hickey, Publisher and CEO, The Good Men Project / Good Men Media Inc.

And here's another:

“Lisa Brunette’s new collection of poems are short stories-cum-lyrics—Bukowski arias about baseball, rhododendrons, and blue herons. In each, she is trying to see the world and herself with clarity and music. In one central poem, ‘Noticing,’ she writes that she is ‘trying to make peace with a nature poet / who doesn’t write about what spoils the view.’ This is, it’s not hard to see, because she finds herself attracted to things, views, people, experiences, that do. She concludes her thought in the poem this way: ‘Morning brings a blue heron / legs and beak a perfect arrow shot through the sky / If I’d been staring at the ground, I would have missed it.’ Reading these poems so full of eros and sky we can see that she likes to look elsewhere.”

—Lyall Bush, former executive director of both the Northwest Film Forum and Richard Hugo House 

I look forward to hearing what you think of them.

Oh, and it's 99 cents on ebook, which, like I said, you can pre-order now, and the print version will retail for $6.99, but there's no pre-order for that because AMAZON.

 


A Couple of Witchy Women

Brooms

On vacation in Walla Walla, I stopped to take pictures of a row of gorgeous brooms, as they reminded me of the cover of my poetry collection, Broom of Anger.

BROOM OF ANGER 1890x2880

 The owner of the store, Kim Hedine, and I struck up a conversation. My husband, who grew up in Walla Walla, went to high school with her, so the two of them kind of knew each other already. The first gift he ever gave me, coincidentally, was a trio of the fragrant, mystically named goat milk soap bars she sells in her shop, Midnight Oil.

  Midnight_oil

I told Kim my fascination with the brooms came after working on a cover design for the poetry collection, and we got to talking about what it means to recognize anger as an essential component of the healing process. Like a lot of people, she could relate and had her own story to tell.

I stocked up on perfume, more soap, and a couple of bottles of massage oil. Kim carries some really great products in her cute little Walla Walla shop. It's kind of hard to control yourself from breaking the bank in there. I resisted the cuticle cream because I always get my hopes up too high about cuticle cream, only to be disappointed.

Just as we were leaving, Kim asked if she could get a copy of Broom of Anger

"It hasn't released yet, but here's a card for my debut novel," I said, reaching into my purse and pulling out a card.

Kim stared at it in disbelief. "Wait a minute..." she said. "I'm already reading this book!" She opened up her purse and pulled out a dog-eared copy of Cat in the Flock, one with the original cover of the cat on the front.

I gestured toward my husband. "You didn't hear about my book from him?" (The two of them are Facebook friends, owing to the high school connection. And he's my biggest fan.)

"No!" she said. "I found it on Amazon. I had no idea!"

By the way, my husband and I have different last names. When we got married, I kept "Brunette" since I have so many bylines and credits under that name. Besides, Valterra is a made up name he created with his ex-wife, so it doesn't have any lineage or history; whereas, I come from a long line of Brunettes. It's my maternal grandmother's name, which I took after my own divorce.

After we cleared up that I am indeed the author of the very book she happened to be reading, Kim hugged me and said, "Oh, my God! I love your writing! The twist, and the character Cat... I love it."

I walked around on cloud nine the rest of the day. I think I might still be there, in fact.

The next day, I realized it was dumb of me not to buy that broom, so I went back. On my way there, I ran into my husband, who unbeknownst to me, had just stopped by the store. He'd picked up the cuticle cream, which my sister-in-law had assured us would not disappoint. And he said Kim was trying to get a hold of me for a picture to post on her store's Facebook page.

So we trooped back to Midnight Oil, and this happened:

  Riding_broom

  Broom_jump