Dave Justus is author of the first and many other games in the Lifeline series from Big Fish—including the eponymous original; Lifeline 2: Bloodline; Lifeline: Silent Night; and Lifeline: Halfway To Infinity—which have enjoyed nearly 7 million worldwide downloads to date. He is also the co-writer, with Lilah Sturges, of the comic books Everafter: From The Pages Of Fables; Public Relations; Fables: The Wolf Among Us; and more.
Lifeline games are games, but they're also novels. Part of the growing "interactive fiction" genre, the games are entirely text-based, with the reader making choices throughout. It goes like this: A stranded astronaut contacts you, asking for help in the form of a person to talk to as well as ask for advice. Sort of like if "The Martian" were a game instead of a movie, and you got to talk to Mark Watney the entire time he's stranded on Mars.
Lisa: How did you get involved in writing the Lifeline series? Did you have any background in the game industry? What was the genesis for the first game?
Dave: I came to Lifeline in a sort of roundabout way. The original game was being developed by Three Minute Games, a tiny three-man skunkworks within Big Fish. They'd had some minor successes, but they'd come up with the concept for Lifeline and wanted its release to coincide with the release of the Apple Watch. They offered the job to my friend Daryl Gregory -- who is one of the best writers I've ever read, and I thought as much before I ever met him -- but he was too booked to do it, so he very kindly suggested me for the position. Three Minute took a chance on me (I'd barely been published at that point), and gave me tremendous freedom under a very tight deadline. They knew they wanted about three days of gameplay, a sci-fi story with a nongendered protagonist in a "choose your own adventure" style, and they needed it in five weeks. Beyond that, I was free to do whatever I wanted... which was both amazing and daunting.
I had no background in games whatsoever, but I honestly think, in this case, that worked to my advantage. I'd been an avid NES gamer in my childhood, had spent plenty of time with Infocom games like Hitchhiker's Guide (whose DNA you can certainly see in Lifeline), and had played several Playstation games growing up, but the last one I'd really sunk any amount of time into was Tomb Raider 2, back in college. Once I graduated, I had very little "mad money," and I chose to apply that to comics (which I've been collecting since I was eight) rather than video games. But in the case of Lifeline, I think it worked out very well, because I wrote the game purely as a conversation. I wasn't thinking in terms of "power-ups" or acquiring weapons or typical video game structures; rather, I wanted it to feel as much as possible like the Player was receiving texts from a real human being. And the feedback we've gotten has largely indicated that that's exactly what people feel when they're playing: They're not controlling a sprite, they're talking to an actual person.
Lisa: How much text is in these games? As much as a typical novel, say 80,000 words, at least? Or far fewer? Also, you say they wanted three days of play, but I note there are breaks when Taylor is busy. What's the breakout between "idle" time and actual play? How did you figure out how long the breaks should be? What's the longest? The shortest?
Dave: The first Lifeline game is a little over 50,000 words -- more in the range of a novella, or possibly a YA novel. Because of the way I ended up structuring the game (in that I didn't really know what I was doing and wanted to give people the most bang for their buck), a Player who makes it to the end of the game alive will actually have seen the bulk of the game's text. Hopefully no passages that contradict any others, obviously... but I wanted to put as much info as possible on the screen.
Lifeline 2: Bloodline had almost twice as many words. It was very freeing for me, because I felt like I could go into so much more depth on Arika's character, her world, and her quests... but it was a lot to ask of the team on the other end, specifically in terms of translation to other languages. For subsequent games, we've looked for a happy medium in terms of word count: not so much that it causes panic attacks at the Big Fish offices, but enough that the authors can stretch their legs a bit and the Players can, we hope, feel satisfied with the end result.
The "idle" time was essential to Three Minute's concept of a real-time conversation; it takes time for the characters to walk to a new location, or to eat a meal, or to rest for a bit. The first "long" break in the original Lifeline comes when Taylor sleeps on the first night -- the Player must give Taylor some information that creates a life-or-death scenario overnight, and we wanted Players to be tense, anxious to see whether their advice had been Taylor's doom or salvation. I believe that the longest break is six hours (for a character to sleep); delays can be as short as a couple of seconds, if we want to employ them to help with the timing of a joke or something. I originally feared that the breaks would be a turn-off to Players, that no one would want to wait an hour while Taylor walked around a crater. And indeed, after one death, the games give you the option to switch off the "real-time" mode and play with no delays whatsoever. But what we found was that, overwhelmingly, the majority of Players chose to switch back to "real-time" after trying "fast" mode. The preference for the delays is considerable.
Lisa: Let me return to what you said about wanting players to feel as if they're talking to an actual person instead of "controlling a sprite," and how your lack of game-industry experience felt like an advantage to you. This might rankle seasoned game writers and narrative designers, since we're quite serious about our craft and its tradition beyond power-ups and what's "typical." Have you since become part of the game-writing community, instead of a sort of self-described outsider? Or do you still see yourself that way? I'm asking because text adventures in particular have a history and set of best practices that predate what we think of as video games today.
Dave: Please believe me when I say that the last thing I intended here was to cause offense. When I say "typical" structures, I only meant the things that I, personally, thought of as aspects common to NES and arcade games, based on my own history with them. As I mentioned, I'd also played many text games back on my old Apple IIe, and I was primarily drawing from my (admittedly fairly hazy) memories of those while trying to construct Lifeline.
I would definitely still consider myself an outsider when it comes to game writing. I'm in Texas -- nowhere near Big Fish or Three Minute, out on the West Coast -- and I don't wind up getting to attend all the expos and conventions with them. I would be very interested if you could point me to resources for the best practices that you mention -- I perpetually feel like I sort of stumbled into success with Lifeline, and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, "We know you're just faking it. It's time for you to leave." That day is going to suck.
Lisa: Great answer ;). I'll send you some links later on so you can join the game-writing party! Next question: Older players or those younger who've discovered the series anew might compare Lifeline to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first popular in the 80s (I was a huge fan). Were those an inspiration for you?
Dave: They absolutely were. I was a voracious reader as a child -- the sort who would read the back of cereal boxes, just because they had words on them. My parents and grandparents, much to their credit, always indulged this behavior, so I had shelves and shelves of books, including probably two dozen or so Choose Your Own Adventure titles. The one that stands out in my mind, to this day, is Inside UFO 54-40, credited to Edward Packard -- it was a terrifying science fiction story, bleak to the point of nihilism, in which all paths led to defeat, and the best ending could never actually be reached. And it blew my tiny mind. It was the bridge between kids' books and adult literature for me. Once that book had broken me, I could not have cared less about Beezus and Ramona; I was ready for the Overlook Hotel and moon monoliths and Nadsat.
Lisa: I first came across your work back when I was with Big Fish, as manager of the narrative design team. How did the relationship between Big Fish and 3-Minute Games come about, in as much as you can share with readers?
Dave: I'm probably not the best person to answer this one. My understanding is that Three Minute were operating as a skunkworks under the auspices of Big Fish, coming up with all sorts of games like Feed Your Monster and Poll Party. Basically, they were testing different styles of games, different pay structures, seeing which combinations worked best. They had the idea for Lifeline -- from its style to its pay structure to its length, everything came from them. They had done the work in order to make the determination that this was the best admixture of elements... and they got it very, very right. How much I contributed to that, it's hard to say; they had laid the groundwork for me so well, all I had to do was step in and not completely fall on my face. I'm grateful every day that they set me up to succeed, and I'm happy that I was able to deliver something that achieved what they were hoping for.
Lisa: Let's talk about the structure for a Lifeline game. Branching choices can quickly lead to a very complex structure unless you create small branches that loop back to a main narrative, and/or employ the use of stats to track choices. How do you plot out the varying narratives in Lifeline?
Dave: The "complex structure" that you mention is something I ran into very quickly when I was working on the first Lifeline. Even when you only provide binary choices -- which, so far, is all we've done -- those branches can quickly grow out of control as each one doubles, then doubles again, until from a single node you've created a mountain. I had to train myself to weave the elements back together, to keep things from ballooning out of control. When I took on the original assignment, I thought, "Oh, this will be just like writing a short story." But it's not; it's like writing thousands of very, very short stories, of a few sentences each. It took me a painfully long time to make that distinction, but once I did, I was able to realize where I'd gone wrong, and start to plot out "nodes" where the threads were drawn back together. That made my work so, so much easier.
I'm not a coder by nature. I use Twine as the basis for these games (and then a lot of proprietary processes happen afterward, most of which are beyond my comprehension), and in that program I do my best to branch and reconnect smoothly. It's a tremendously useful GUI for people like me, people who need their hand held throughout the process. No matter how carefully I've plotted things in advance, every Lifeline game has led me in unexpected directions; the story that wants to be told is, without exception, better and more interesting than the story I lay out at the beginning. I trust those feelings, trust that when Taylor or Arika or whomever pulls the narrative in an unintended direction, that I'm getting a real sense of what the story should be, instead of forcing it down avenues that aren't true to the characters. (This, by the way, is a fantastic way to drive the rest of the development team insane.)
Lisa: What's an example of a node? Also, did those driving the process have a sense of what came before so you weren't all reinventing the wheel? What you're describing here reminds me of the awesome discussion over at Choice of Games, where they do a great job of teaching newbies how to avoid this kind of ballooning while preserving the need for meaningful choices.
Dave: I think of nodes as "have-to" moments in the game. If, say, by the end of a day, Arika has to learn a certain piece of info, encounter a certain prop, have an opportunity to eat, and fight a specific foe, then I have four nodes for that day. If she can't move on without acquiring an object or having a conversation, then I know that, no matter how wildly things balloon, all roads must lead back to a single point. The order in which they're encountered may or may not matter, but generally speaking, these are the crucial passages; the Player's decisions upon hitting these nodes will have a major effect on what follows in the game.
Lisa: How many different endings could players get in a typical Lifeline game? How do you make sure those endings make sense for the previous choices made in the game?
Dave: Generally, there are a few deaths along the way. These are paths where the Player has made an egregious mistake, or else has willfully decided not to aid the protagonist. Those are, of course, the "bad" endings -- no one should be proud of killing their hero. Then there are the "good" endings, where the Player has done most things right, and has achieved an ending that is satisfactory, although not the best one could hope for. The hope is that the Player will feel good about these... but will still have a nagging sense that they should return to the game, and work for the best possible ending. And we'll tell you when you've achieved that; we want Players to know when they've gotten all the items, or defeated all the villains, or done the best they can. I write stories with Pyrrhic victories, sometimes -- blame Inside UFO 54-40 -- but there's always a "best" ending, and that's the canon ending that leads to the next game in the series.
Lisa: Does this ever backfire? It strikes me as different than most casual gameplay, where player character deaths are generally avoided. Do you lose some players by opting for Pyrrhic victories?
Dave: I had that fear at the outset, but to the relief of all of us, the Player reactions to character deaths seem to be a deepening of involvement, not an abandoning of the game. It seems to largely be the case that, if a Player loses Taylor by pushing the character too hard or by supplying incorrect information, there's generally a sense of culpability in the death that makes the Player want to try harder the next time. I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people on social media expressing genuine grief and sadness over character deaths in the Lifeline games.
Lisa: (This last one's for my stepson, who loved the first game when it went viral at his high school a few years ago.) You set up Taylor as a gender-neutral character, an interesting choice. Can you talk about your reasons for that? My stepson notes that most of his classmates assumed Taylor was either female (most of the women did this) or split evenly between male or female (mostly guys).
Dave: The gender-neutrality of Taylor's character came from Three Minute Games, but I thought it was a fantastic idea. At that time, it was easier than I thought it would be to write such a character -- when gender signifiers are removed, you realize how similar a kick-ass male and female protagonist actually are. It's grown increasingly difficult, as Halfway To Infinity introduces a doppelgänger Taylor, to keep the pronouns correct -- but I'm happy to face down that challenge. Seeing so much fan art for the character has made me realize just how much room we've left for interpretation. I don't consider that there's a "right" answer at all. People who know me have told me that they see a lot of me in Taylor... but for every argument for "male," I see another one, just as convincing, for "female." I love that I don't have a definitive answer. I hope that I never do. I hope that I can continue to write a character that resonates with everyone who reads it.
You can download the game to your favorite device. See the Big Fish Lifeline page for more info.
March was a busy month, as I had two virtual book tours running at the same time--with participation from a whopping 21 blogs. Partners in Crime sponsored the first tour, and then blogger "CMash" added a side tour when she chose me for Author of the Month.
The two giveaways drew huge crowds, for a total of 1,169 entries. Four participants snagged Amazon gift certificates, two received signed paperbacks in the mail, and nine won ebook copies of the focus book for the tour, Cat in the Flock. A huge thanks to the army of book bloggers who stumped for the Dreamslippers Series, and congrats to the winners.
Besides the giveaways, the tour had several components: guest blogs, interviews (including a live radio show), reviews, and spotlights.
I've very much enjoyed having authors as guests on my own blog for the "What's the Motive?" series, so it's nice to keep the karma flowing by serving as a guest myself. Per the book bloggers' prompts, I delved into the inspiration behind the Dreamslippers series as well as my current work-in-progress, in addition to other meaty topics.
For Books, Dreams, Life, I talked about how the years of work I did as a narrative designer in the video-game industry shaped my intention for the Dreamslippers Series: "That experience—five years spent fighting cliché—drove me to create a kick-ass grandmother/granddaughter duo based on the real women in my life."
For CMash Reads, I wrote three guest posts. In the first, I reveal the premise for my current work-in-progress, a standalone novel that is quite a departure from the Dreamslippers Series. There's also a sneak-peak excerpt of the opening chapter. In another post, I discuss the book-body connection, drawing on my own struggles and victories in yoga and dance as I wrote the series: "The experience forced me to acknowledge limitations, as well as the need to heal." The last is a reflection on my love of "quirky" characters and where that penchant might come from: "My favorite females were made indomitably strong by the challenges they’d faced, and if that forge wrought them into a shape that didn’t fit any mold, we were all the better for it."
I gave four interviews, but the most memorable was definitely the Blog Talk Radio interview with Fran Lewis. Fran asked excellent questions based on a very careful, thorough reading of Cat in the Flock, making me think of the book in a new way now that it's been nearly three years since its release.
For the Author of the Month interview, CMash demanded something of me that no one's asked before: "Tell us why we should read this book." Read the answer here.
For Cozy Up With Kathy, I answer the question I get a lot these days: Will you continue the series? I could tell you here on my own blog, but Granny Grace says I should send you to Kathy's blog for the answer. It's only fair!
The toughest question came from the Writers and Authors blogger, who asked if I discovered anything during my work on Cat in the Flock that was unexpected. The answer is yes: "The biggest thing I learned writing Cat in the Flock was the difference between a mystery story that works for a game and what works for a novel."
It's always nice to get reviews on a tour, and this one brought in new opinions from 14 bloggers. Here's a quick snapshot.
Blog #1: CMash Reads
Money quote: "The suspense in this book had me turning the pages. The plot contains spirituality, betrayals, truths, lies, murder, and a rekindled love. The thought of the dream slipping was intriguing. And a shocking ending."
Blog #2: Laura's Interests
Stars: None given
Money quote: "The women take the roles of strength and power in this series. Accept it." (Hands down my favorite quote of the tour.)
Blog #3: Reading to Distraction
Money quote: "It was also refreshing to see the characters discuss the limitations of such a skill rather than having a solution to the mystery conveniently come up in a dream."
Blog #4: A Dream Within a Dream
Stars: None given
Money quote: "Lots of details and vivid descriptions brought the story to life in my mind."
Blog #5: Avid Reader
Money quote: "As a Christian, I was a bit concerned about the part of the plot dealing with a very conservative church. I think Brunette did a fine job portraying the culture of a church when the leadership has gone wrong."
Blog #6: Wall-to-Wall Books
Stars: None given
Money quote: "I have already decided that I am going to have to read all up-coming books in this new series!"
Blog #7: Bookishly Me
Money quote: "I really enjoyed seeing Cat develop throughout the story and I cannot wait to see what she will encounter next."
Blog #8: Just Reviews
Stars: None given
Money quote: "Lisa Brunette takes us deep inside the world of dreams and hopefully Cat will find her way to her own salvation and not remain CAT IN THE FLOCK."
Blog #9: The Book Adventures of Emily
Money quote: "Cat McCormick is such a great main character."
Blog #10: Books Direct
Stars: None given
Money quote: "The characters are interesting and likable, with full backstories. There are plenty of religious references, but it never feels as if the author is preaching or imposing her religious beliefs on the reader. There's even some romance for Cat - and Grandma Grace! A very satisfying read."
Blog #11: Mystery Suspense Reviews (Audiobook)
Stars: None given
Money quote: "It was my first listen to Angel Clark as narrator, but I’ll be looking for more. She has just the right voice for Cat, did well distinguishing the voices of different characters, and read at an excellent pace."
Blog #12: Martha's Bookshelf
Stars: None given
Money quote: "I recommend this to readers who enjoy mystery with a touch of supernatural ability."
Blog #13: Wall-to-Wall Books (Audiobook)
Money quote: "I thought the reader's voice was perfect for Cat."
Blog #14: Cozy Up With Kathy
Stars: None given
Money quote: "Although the topics involved in CAT IN THE FLOCK are heavy and filled with gravitas, the book has a lightness and a joy within."
These bloggers posted an excerpt, links, and the giveaways.
Now that I've done tours for three books and a boxed set, I've come to think of many of these bloggers as true partners in crime, beyond the tour! Most give of their time and energy without any other return besides the chance to read and talk about books. God love 'em.
Images courtesy of Pixabay.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The Dreamslippers Series Boxed Set + Bonus Story released in February. With this release, I decided to focus on an online, or "virtual" tour, since the boxed set is only available on ebook. I'm also happily slammed with game-writing projects this year and already had a commitment to speak at the Associated Writing Programs conference in D.C. around the date of the launch.
This time we included a giveaway, and 83 people signed up to win copies of all three novels in paperback, ebook, and audiobook, as well as the boxed set. Congrats to the winners!
The tour had three components: reviews, an interview, and spotlights.
While not all book bloggers assign star ratings to the books they review, several on this tour did, with three coming in with 5-star reviews. The first one, for Framed and Burning, book two in the series, came from Anteria Writes:
Each character sees their dreamslipping ability as something different. Mitch could care less, Cat sees it as a curse that gets people killed, and Grace sees and uses it as a gift. Cat is the great-niece of Mitch, granddaughter to Grace. She is, of course, the youngest and least experienced using the dreamslipping and has had the worst experience with her gift, blaming it for the death of her childhood sweetheart. Mitch and Grace are siblings. They’ve each made their way in life, using their talents, natural and supernatural. And those talents have brought good and bad things to each of them.
Along with success we find jealousy, loathing, contempt….Mitch has the idea that there is plenty of room in the world for all art. But humans are inherently competitive and greedy. So they try to take down Mitch in his prime, but he wins out, becoming a coveted artist. Thus, begins the journey to find an accidental killer.
The story is woven perfectly to tell each person’s story in that person’s personality. We have the seriousness in Cat’s narratives, the eccentricity and grounding in Grace’s, and the disjointed, emotional feel of Mitch.
The nominations and awards this book has received were well-deserved.
The second 5-star review came from The Book Adventures of Emily, which has hosted the series in the past:
Cat in the Flock is super awesome! There is so much mystery and suspense! I've posted spotlights of this series, and it always piqued my interest. The dreamslippers are so amazing; I can't describe how much they fascinate me. Cat McCormick is such a great main character. She isn't cliche or confusing; she gets straight to the point, and I love following her on this road of mystery. The overall writing style of Cat in the Flock is super straight forward and enjoyable! I can really see the care and effort Ms. Brunette put into this book, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
Another reviewer, Book Fidelity, praised the book for the portrayal of recent college grad Cat McCormick as well:
Through some fantastic storytelling, we are plunged into this world of dreams and curiosity. Cat is wonderful and real in that she makes mistakes, but keeps moving forward. Also, the idea of detective work including psychic abilities is just plain awesome. I definitely recommend this book (and series) for fans of Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Brigs, and Karen Marie Moning.
The blogger at Rosepoint Publishing gave the book 4 out of 5 stars and acknowledged, "Guessing whodunit isn’t so difficult. It’s how the protagonist gets us there, the maturity of her dreamslipping powers, and the peripheral characters that adds to an overall enjoyable read."
The most exciting 5-star review came from J Bronder Reviews, who has now posted on all three books in the series. The blogger writes, "This is a great series and one that I strongly recommend. I loved all three books and can’t wait to see what happens next."
I was happy to meet a new book blogger on this tour in Reeca's Pieces. The name of her blog made me smile, and I shared this anecdote with her: Back in grad school when I was studying for my MFA in fiction, I used to write short "flash" fiction pieces that would appear in between the longer stories in my short story collection. My classmates called these "Lisa's Pieces."
Reeca asked great questions about the inspiration for the series, which is not one thing but many. Here's the first:
I read a lot of supernatural and psychic mysteries and interviewed four of Seattle’s top writers in the genre for Seattle Woman magazine. I was also a huge fan of the TV series Medium; I loved how psychic visions came to the protagonist in her dreams. I’ve always been an active dreamer and for many years suffered from PTSD-related nightmares, so dreams have held great significance for me.
Read the rest of the interview on Reeca's blog.
A huge thank you to Sage's Blog Tours for hosting and to the book bloggers who give generously of their time, effort, and opinion to tell their readers about the books they love.
Buy links and details for the Boxed Set + Bonus Story are here. If you've read every book in the series, please take the time to review the boxed set online. I could really use the reviews to get the boxed set in front of more readers. Thank you!
Also, for those of you who are fans of the series, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. If I continue to write the series, what would you like to see? Tell me if there's a particular character you're most interested in, any questions you have, and so on. If you've read the bonus story in the boxed set, I'd be interested in knowing if you'd like to read a whole novel devoted to Amazing Grace's early years.
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!
Book blogger Cheryl Macciarelli chose me as Author of the Month for March, and as part of that, she published the below interview. I'm sharing it here on the blog so visitors and subscribers don't miss it in the frenzy of social media updates this month, as we're also running a Partners in Crime Tour. I love good questions, and "CMash" didn't disappoint.
Do you draw from personal experiences and/or current events?
Yes, all of the above. But I wouldn’t call my books autobiographical. It’s surprising to me that I have to explain this, but I don’t actually have the ability to psychically pick up other people’s dreams. Still, this question comes up often when I read my work publicly!
What was the inspiration for this book?
This book was inspired in part by my rekindled love of genre fiction. Back in 2008, I interviewed top mystery writers for a Seattle Woman cover story. Reading their work reminded me of when I first fell in love with reading as a child, and that was genre fiction like Nancy Drew. Academia had beat this out of me, unfortunately, so it was wonderful to be drawn back to it as an adult. After all, being an adult means you’re allowed to read whatever you want! After the Seattle Woman cover story, by 2009, I’d joined the game industry as a writer full-time, and by 2011, I was working on the story design for primarily mystery games. That led to a pent-up need to create my own plot and characters, since a lot of game writing happens by committee.
Do you start with the conclusion and plot in reverse or start from the beginning and see where the story line brings you?
I plot the entire novel out in a very rough format, with questions and multiple possibilities noted, writing this in marker directly on my wall, which I’ve painted in whiteboard paint. Then I begin to write, and I give myself permission to explore questions, try different paths, and deviate when necessary. So I guess I’m a hybrid writer. Several times I didn’t know a character would appear and act that way in a scene until I was in the midst of writing it.
Your routine when writing? Any idiosyncrasies?
I don’t have a routine. I probably should, but I have to flex my novel-writing time around game-writing projects, and those have harder deadlines. The only thing I really need besides uninterrupted time and quiet is to make use of my laptop’s “wifi off” function, which is a lifesaver.
If you could co-author a book, who would that writer be?
To continue reading, here's the full interview at CMash Reads.
Also, you'll see lots of opportunities to win free books and gift certificates running until April 2. Throw your hat in the ring!
A lot has been written about the current 'girl' book phenomenon (see here, here, and here for starters), but I thought it would be fun to imagine what those titles might be in a better world. Here we go...(slight NSFW warning)...
The Girl With the Fuck You Tattoo
Girl on the Luxury Train
Girl Flicking a Razor
Girls, But We Really Mean Women
The Woman Who Flew Into Space
A Woman's Story, Told by Herself
for women of color who committed murder when the rainbow was more than enuf
The Girl Who Spoke Her Mind
The Loudest Girl in the Room
The Girl Who Was Nobody's Slave
Such a Smart Girl
Girl with a Pearl Earring She Bought for Herself
The Woman's Guide to Being Your Own Damn Guide
The Girl Who Wore Whatever She Wanted That Day
The Neither Good Nor Bad Girl
...and of course...
Here and Now Girl
... Now add your own to the list in the comments below. Need help? Goodreads has a list of every 'girl'-titled book published.
I'm honored to be named Author of the Month by book blogger CMash Reads, joining the company of Michael Baron, James Lepore, Charles Salzberg, and other award-winning, bestselling authors.
Today kicks off a month of features, interviews, and guest posts, not to mention giveaways and prizes, both as part of the Author of the Month feature and a Partners in Crime tour running concurrently. It all starts now with this review of Cat in the Flock, Book One in the Dreamslippers Series.
"The suspense in this book had me turning the pages," writes CMash. "The plot contains spirituality, betrayals, truths, lies, murder, and a rekindled love. The thought of the dreamslipping was intriguing. And a shocking ending."
Tomorrow morning at 7 am PST, I'll be interviewed on Fran Lewis' BlogTalkRadio. Tune in to hear behind-the-book-cover info on the Dreamslippers Series and more.
The prize potential this month is through the roof, with two Amazon gift certificates and a number of audiobooks, ebooks, and paperbacks free to the winners. I hope you'll take advantage of the giveaways and join the conversations on the blogs. Good luck!
It's happened. The entire Dreamslippers Series is out in the world as one tome.
That's all three novels in one fat ebook.* PLUS a bonus novella "prequel" that explores Amazing Grace's past.
The series centers on the question, "What if you could slip into the dreams of a killer?" This family of PIs can, but that isn't easy.
In Cat in the Flock, the first book, readers meet apprentice dreamslipper Cat McCormick, who moves to Seattle from the Midwest so she can train with her Grandmother Grace. The septuagenarian trailblazer is a dreamslipping pro, having used it to solve crimes as a PI. But Cat gets more than she bargained for as Grace puts her through her New Age paces, with yoga and meditation on the agenda. However, Cat gets drawn back to the Midwest when she discovers a prominent church leader stalking a woman and girl on the run.
In book two, Framed and Burning, Grace pops for a trip to Miami to visit her brother Mick for Art Basel, which should also lift Cat's spirits. But when Mick's studio goes up in flames, and he won't give an alibi, the dreamslippers must defend one of their own.
The third book, Bound to the Truth, takes place in Seattle, with all three dreamslippers under one roof. An up-and-coming architect is found dead, and her wife Robin thinks she knows who did it. But Cat and Grace aren't sure they can trust the grieving widow's claims.
Included in the ebook boxed set is a bonus novella that answers key questions readers have asked about Amazing Grace: How did she get her name? What happened when her daughter Mercy was born? And did Grace really go undercover inside a cult?
The first two books won the indieBRAG medallion, and the second book was a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award and a RONE Award nominee.
All three novels are for sale in print locally (near me) at Book ’n’ Brush in Chehalis, and the ebooks are available everywhere ebooks are sold, for any device.
Look for giveaways, guest posts, and more all this week for the blog tour! Free ebooks, audiobooks, and paperbacks to the winners. Here's the first tour stop.
And here's the full tour schedule.
*The ebook clocks in at 262,920 words.
This week I'll be in D.C. presenting at the Associated Writing Programs Conference, now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. AWP provides support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers. I've wanted to attend this conference since I was a creative writing student working toward my Master of Fine Arts degree back in 2000. But the demands and focus of my full-time career have always been higher priorities. So I'm thrilled to finally get the chance, 17 years later.
I'm honored to be included on a panel with four women whose bios will knock your socks off. Our topic: "The Reporter and the Story: How Journalism Can Inform, and Fund, a Literary Career."
While most days it seems I'm heavier on the inform part of this equation than the fund, I'm excited to share my experiences as a freelance journalist for twenty-plus years, from writing on the arts and literature back in my home town of St. Louis, to the bootstrap days with a big-time Seattle startup, to the regular feature articles I now write for a small-town newspaper. These real-life stories have always fed my fictional storytelling.
Here's the full panel description, followed by bios for each presenter. Check out their web sites--you're bound to discover a new favorite author on this list.
Hemingway, Orwell, Dickens—all worked as journalists before becoming celebrated novelists. In addition to building your platform and paying the bills, working as a reporter can make you a better poet, novelist, or memoirist. Five journalists talk about how reporting on others drives them to create better fictional characters, how radio reporting has helped them develop their authorial voice, and how daily deadline gigs can lead to a career as a narrative nonfiction author.
Jessica Langlois is a Los Angeles-based journalist, essayist, and educator. She writes about race, class and gender equity; grassroots arts and political movements; and California histories.
A frequent contributor to LA Weekly, she has also written news, features, and reviews for The Washington Post, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, East Bay Express, KCET's Artbound, and Oakland Tribune. Her literary nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, California Northern, American Literary Review, Travelers' Tales, and The Rumpus. More at www.jessicalanglois.com.
Jeneé Darden has reported for National Public Radio, Time magazine, Los Angeles Times, Ebony, Marketplace, Huffington Post, KQED, KPCC and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance magazine. In 2005, she contributed reporting on the London 7/7 transit bombings for Time magazine’s Europe edition.
Jeneé has been interviewed/featured by BBC, Access Hollywood, Inside Edition, NPR, Marie Claire, Daily Mail, Daily Beast, KTVU, BlackGirlNerd.com, BeyondBlackWhite.com, the book Swirling. She was mentioned in the hit FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson. The daughter of former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden, Jeneé holds a BA in ethnic studies from UC San Diego and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. More at www.cocoafly.com.
Jenny J. Chen is an award-winning science journalist and multimedia producer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, NYTimes.com, NPR, Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, Vice, and many more.
In 2014 and 2015, she was awarded a PRX STEM grant to produce stories for NPR member stations across the country. In 2014, she received a grant from the D.C. Humanities Council to produce a radio documentary series on growing up mixed race in Washington, D.C. Jenny has also received numerous fellowships and awards to cover health, aging, minority issues, and climate change. She has spoken about journalism and the role of ethnic media at the Smithsonian Folklife festival. In another life, she has also had a play produced at Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center. More at www.jennychen.com.
Elizabeth Flock is a journalist based in Washington D.C., where she works as a reporter and producer at PBS NewsHour. She is currently working on a book, The Heart is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai, for Harper Collins (January 2018). Her reporting focuses on social issues, with a focus on the criminal justice system, protest movements and marriage and sexuality.
Elizabeth was a breaking news reporter at the Washington Post and staff writer at U.S. News and World Report. She has also written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Atlantic, New York Magazine, and the Chicago Tribune. More at www.lizflock.com.
If you're attending AWP, feel free to get in touch. I'd love to meet up with you! And please come to our panel. It's on Friday, Feb. 10, from 3-4:15 pm.
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!
Around Thanksgiving, my husband and I decided to share our reading experiences by swapping books. He recommended one for me to read, and I picked out a book for him to read. His pick for me was the indie-published novel Fat, Old, Punks from UK writer James "Grim" Desborough.
I loved the book. It's laugh-out-loud funny, thanks to Desborough's clever wit. The setup is ingenious and hilarious: a group of middle-aged punk rocker friends meet in a pub that's relevance is waning as surely as their own. After they go several rounds comparing sources of unhappiness and lamenting how futile it is to change the world for the better, they manage to hatch a plan that is as brilliant as it is doomed to fail. Or succeed? Does it even matter? The book is a must-read for anyone who craves another perspective on contemporary politics.
For me, this was a 5-star book, in that it was a thoroughly entertaining read, stayed true to its promise, and had zero flaws. It sucked me in and kept me riveted to the end, and I came to care about the characters and their issues, which are real and wholly felt. It resonated with me, and I think it would resonate with other readers.
Full of my passion for the book, I logged onto Amazon and posted a review. I was only the second US reader to post a review. I noticed the only other review had been posted by my husband.
At first, the review appeared as normal. But later, when my husband went to look at what I'd written about the book, he found that not only had my review disappeared, but his had as well. We both appealed the deletion through Amazon, and after several rounds, I received this message:
We are unable to post your Customer Review for "Old, Fat, Punks" to the Amazon website because our data shows elements of your Amazon account match elements of other Amazon accounts reviewing the same product. In these cases, we remove the reviews to maintain trust in our customer reviews and avoid any perception of bias.
You will not be able to resubmit a review for that product, even if the resubmitted review includes different content.
Customer Reviews are meant to give customers unbiased product feedback from fellow shoppers. It is our goal to provide Customer Reviews that help customers make informed purchase decisions. Therefore, any reviews that could be viewed as advertising, promotional, or biased will not be posted. This includes reviews by more than one customer in the same household.
This is pretty disturbing on a number of levels.
First, assuming that's what tripped the red flag, how does Amazon know we're in the same household? We have separate Amazon accounts; mine is tied to my author account. We use separate credit cards to purchase products on Amazon. And we use separate email addresses, from a generic email service, to log into our accounts. So that leaves two possibilities for the bots to detect we're in the same household: They could match our delivery addresses, and since we both have numerous delivery addresses, as we frequently send to family in other areas, this would seem... difficult. Or they could suss it out from various billing addresses. Either way, it's a creepy level of surveillance, all to... what? Basically punish an indie writer by deleting his only two reviews in the US. Nice job, Amazon. Good one.
Second, WTF is up with this policy? People from the same household can't review the same products? By this logic, no one sharing an address can ever review the same product. So if you and your mother or sister or roommate happen to love the same book, video, underwear three-pack, or pet scratching post, don't think you can both post a review about it. It's not even first-come, first-served in this case. If your mom posts a review, and then you post a review for the same product, BOTH your reviews will be deleted. Because Amazon's bots said so.
Plus, think about the people who might share 'households.' When I worked for Big Fish, many of us had packages delivered to the office instead of our homes (since we were more likely to be at the office, yup). Would Amazon read us all as being from the same household since we shared a mailing address? What about army barracks, dorms, group homes, etc.?
Third, what if it's not the shared mailing address and instead other "elements" of our accounts that raised the issue? Amazon's vagueness here is creepy, as are the ads that show up on my Facebook wall for products I've viewed on Amazon.
In our case, James Desborough's indie title got a minuscule boost through word-of-mouth advertising when my husband recommended the book to me. Neither my husband nor I received anything in exchange for the reviews, and my husband purchased the ebook version of the novel, which I read on his Kindle. My husband and I are both connected with Desborough online due to our mutual interests in books and games, but I've never met Desborough in person, and my husband met him once, years ago, at a game convention. So in actuality, the author did all the right things here in spreading the word about his work through social media and conferences over the years. Only to have Amazon undo it all in one fell swoop.
No one has done anything wrong here whatsoever, yet our time has been wasted, and an innocent author is being arbitrarily punished.
If Amazon really wanted to protect customers from review fraud, they'd set their bot programming to trigger this kind of response only after a suspicious number of reviews came in for a product. Two is NOT a suspicious number. They could also find out if the reviews came from accounts in good standing. My husband and I have spent probably thousands of dollars on Amazon products over the many years we've had separate accounts. We are very careful especially since I'm an author not to trade reviews or otherwise violate good ethics with regard to reviews.
We tried to reason with Amazon, and this is how they responded:
We reviewed the information you provided and have determined that your review was removed in accordance with our guidelines. Our data shows that elements of your Amazon account match elements of other Amazon accounts reviewing the same product. In such cases, we remove the review to maintain trust in our customer reviews and to avoid any perception of bias.
To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Creation Guidelines (http://www.amazon.com/review-guidelines).
We cannot share any further information about our decision and we will not reply to further emails about this issue.
So basically, we have no recourse for further appeal, and Amazon refuses to be transparent about its review process. This instills neither confidence nor loyalty in me, as a customer or Amazon author.
I think of reviews as a civic duty in this age--I know first-hand how reviews can make or break sales. I've diligently reviewed a wide variety of products on Amazon; not just books but everything from air filters to vitamin supplements. But now? I don't know if I'll continue. Reviewing books is part of my job, but this makes it hard to post on Amazon. We know one thing, and that's that my husband CANNOT now post a review for the book I recommended to him, Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sorry, Kareem.
If this can go so, so wrong, I wonder if Amazon's bots are truly protecting anyone from review fraud. Instead, they're hurting the little guy here. And that's not cool at all.
Top image, courtesy of Pixabay. Second image, my own.
My big, fat book tour for Bound to the Truth had both an in-person leg and a virtual one, with guest posts, reviews, and spotlights on numerous blogs. Here's a rundown of the blog tour.
Four bloggers so far have reviewed the book, rating it highly.
The Book Adventures of Emily gave it five stars and raves: "Bound to the Truth is pretty fantastic! People with psychic abilities plus the fact they're investigators, um that's great! I'm really fascinated by this story, it's filled with action, suspense and a ton of mystery!"
Over at Book Fidelity, the reviewer praised the characters specifically: "I found myself completely submerged in this story of intrigue and, honestly? apprehension. It is every bit a mystery, but with a twist. And, dear reader, you know how much I love 'my characters' in books, and this work is no different. they are an array of unique and as equally mysterious as the world around them." (4 stars)
Another 5-star review came in from J Bronder Book Reviews, who wrote: "This is a great mystery with lots of action. Robin and Nina seem to have a perfect marriage from the outside, but inside there are cracks. I loved Cat, she is a strong woman and I loved following along as they had to dig deep to find the killer."
Sage Adderley, my tour host, took time out of her busy schedule to review the book as well and had this to say: "The plot runs deep and the characters are both quirky and interesting. This is a total whodunit mystery that will keep you on edge until the very end!"
For this tour, I decided to offer guest posts as a way to give back to the awesome book bloggers who take time to read and promote indie books, almost always as a side gig or hobby on their own time. I know how exciting it is to host other writers on my own blog, so I wanted to share the love for that reason, too.
One thing I noticed across the series, beginning with that great Kirkus review for Cat in the Flock and continuing through Bound to the Truth, is that people often use the word "quirky" to describe the characters and scenarios. So I analyzed my obsession with quirk for The Editing Pen. Apparently the seeds for it were sown during my childhood.
Regular readers of this blog know about my other obsessions: yoga and Nia. I talk about how and why I snuck these holistic practices into the Dreamslippers Series in this post for The Wordy Nerd.
I launched Bound to the Truth on the Friday after the presidential election. For The Attic Ghost, I wrote some thoughts related to all that.
For fellow author Freda Hansburg's blog, I decided to focus on social media, since it's something people in just about every profession should know how to do well. While I have much room for improvement, I've seen enough success in this area to be able to offer advice to others. It comes down to three simple rules.
A couple of bloggers put Bound to the Truth in their spotlight sections. Mello & June, It's a Book Thang! had shown their love for the book earlier in the year for the cover reveal, and they came through again here at launch. Another spotlight came from Book, Dreams, Life.
Many thanks to the book bloggers who give generously of their time, space, and opinion, and especially to Sage's Blog Tours for hosting.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Sometimes I like to break from the long-form novel writing and try my hand at shorter pieces. It's also gratifying to see your work published in other venues, and to hopefully pick up new readers. It's been a busy fall, with the launch of Bound to the Truth coinciding with three short publications:
This Action Cannot Be Undone
I had an idea in mind for a while to capture the drama of online connection and disconnection as told solely through Facebook notifications. I finally crafted a short piece, the work taking me longer than you'd think, given the length (poets, I know your struggle). I found a great home for "This Action Cannot Be Undone" at Argot Magazine--check out the cool layout. Since I'm involved in game design, and so many people are annoyed by game requests on FB, I made up a fictitious game called Crash Monkey Bonanza. Hence, the sparklenuts. One of my readers said "The monkeys have gone sparklenuts!" is like the best line ever. (Angel investors, if you'd like to see a proposal for this as a real game, let me know.)
I felt inspired to write about my first seven jobs when the meme swept the Internets a couple of months ago, and Tues/Night was happy to oblige, including me in a roundup of posts on the subject. This one is 100 percent autobiographical, which felt strange and risky to me after writing fiction for so many years, both the novels and all that game writing, but there it is. Believe me, you can't make this @$%& up.
Regular readers of the blog know I'm not a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month. For me, what's needed much more is a National Novel Reading Month. You can see why in the stats I included in my article on NaNo for The Chronicle: In the nearly 20-year history of NaNo, only around 250 novels have been picked up by publishers and made it into print; whereas, last year alone, close to half a million writers participated. But! Wait! I challenged myself to find the validity and goodness in NaNo, and I'm proud of how that comes through in the piece. See for yourself.
Please support these supporters of writing by clicking on the links and commenting on the pieces. Thanks, and have a great day!
Image courtesy of Pixabay. No sparklenuts were harmed in the creation of this post.
Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.
Qui and I are old colleagues and friends. I served as a beta reader for his first novel before that was even a thing, and the two of us worked together teaching English at St. Louis Community College. During me recent trip to St. Louis, he told me about his interesting indie project, a poetry collection written in the voice of Inspector Chen, a character he's developed over the course of a multi-book series. Chen trained in poetry, and it informs his thoughts and is a compelling aspect of the series. But this is the first time the poems have been gathered into a collection.
Lisa: Poetry has been an integral part of your Inspector Chen series since the beginning. Why fuse these seemingly disparate genres—poetry and crime—into one?
Qui: To begin with, I love poetry, and I cannot but have my Inspector Chen love it, too. In an age with few people reading poetry, it's just my way of smuggling poetry into crime fiction. But it's also more than that; in classical Chinese novels, there're more poems than in my Inspector Chen novels, usually with a poem at the beginning of a chapter, and another at the end of it, and more with a new character being introduced. And I think it is justified for varying lyrical intensity in the narration--like the use of blank verse in a Shakespearean play, so it sort of carries on the Chinese tradition. But more importantly, at least so for myself, I want Inspector Chen to observe not only from a cop's perspective, but from a poet's as well. The two sometimes come into conflict, which may also make the character more complicated.
Lisa: That’s really fascinating; I didn’t realize Chinese novels integrate the poetic form so much. And yes, I enjoy the two sides of Chen’s brain, poet and inspector. Together they lead him to a sort of third way of doing things that seems to be a negotiation between the two. There’s a lush, philosophical quality to his thoughts that make his perspective such a pleasure. I’m curious: What have readers said about this unique poetry/mystery mashup? I know we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. your foreign readers. Are those abroad more receptive to reading poetry with their plots?
Qui: I believe it’s something worth trying for a writer to write in the genre, but at the same time, to push the limit of it—if that’s what you call the unique poetry/mystery mashup. From what feedback I’ve gotten from my readers, I think they like it. Yes, we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. readers elsewhere. For instance, Poems of Inspector Chen have been translated and published by my Italian and French publishers, and during my tour in France in October, one of the most rewarding experiences there was the discussion with 300 high school students in Lyon about that poetry collection, which they studied in class. But I want to add, readers here are also so enthusiastic about the poetry. During a recent conference sponsored by the Ahmanson family in L.A., for instance, the host offered the poetry collection to everybody attending the conference. A very large audience indeed. It’s just her way of supporting poetry and Inspector Chen, which I understand and appreciate.
Lisa: With your background in literary poetry and fiction, what drew you to the detective genre in the first place?
Qui: I've always loved crime fiction. But the way I started writing in the genre was accidental. In the mid-nineties, I went back to China for a visit after staying in the States for seven or eight years. I was so impressed by the changes taking place there that I wanted to try my hand on a novel about the society in transition, but I had not written fiction before, so I had a hard time putting things together. Then the knowledge of the crime fiction genre came to my rescue, so to speak. I reshuffled the contents, and used the genre as a ready-made framework for what I wanted to say. In fact, when I submitted the manuscript for Death of a Red Heroine to my publisher, I was not even that sure it was a real crime novel. But my publisher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a series. So here I am, with book number ten of the Inspector Chen series coming out in French in September. But because of the accidental entry, you may still notice the sociological traces in all these books.
Lisa: Wonderful—that explains so much. It’s interesting to hear you say your original plan was to write about society in transition. You weave this into the plots well, or rather, you deftly use plot as a vehicle for immersing your reader in that transitional society fully. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the series. How has that waxed and waned over the course of the series? You say now with ten there are still traces…
Qui: With so much happening in contemporary Chinese society, I’m capable of putting each Inspector Chen investigation in a specific social, political, cultural backdrop, in which the crime and the investigation are directly or indirectly commenting on it, and also commented on by the society in transition. For instances, Death of a Red Heroine against the backdrop of the split personality imposed on individuals living under an authoritarian regime, Red Mandarin Dress against that of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake against that of China’s ecological crisis, Enigma of China against that of governmental cyber control, and Shanghai Redemption against that of uncontrollable corruption under the one-party system… And with so much still happening there, Inspector Chen has a long way to go with a sociological perspective. After Becoming Inspector Chen, the manuscript I’m working on also has such a background focus on the lack of an independent legal system in China.
Lisa: Let’s talk about your latest book, a collection of Inspector Chen’s poetry in one volume. It’s a brilliant, yet curious choice. Are there other models for what you’ve done, taking a fictional character and making him the “author” of a book of poetry? What made you decide to do this now?
Qui: For myself, it’s not exactly a curious choice. I don’t think I had any models in mind while compiling the collection, but I benefitted from the “mask” theory elaborated by Yeats. According to him, a poet could speak behind the mask of a character. And I found the experience truly liberating, for I could suddenly write about things familiar, relevant to the inspector, but not necessarily to me. It’s also experimental in exploration of the reversible interrelationship among the creating and the created in the process of fiction writing.
Lisa: I’m also intrigued by your decision to self-publish this book of poetry. What has been your experience so far, as someone whose work has always been traditionally published—first with SoHo Press and now with St. Martin’s—stepping out into the wilds of publishing on your own?
Qui: The Poems of Inspector Chen was published traditionally in France and Italy. But I’m quite aware of today’s difficult poetry market. For me, it’s a labor of love, but not necessarily so for every publisher, which I understand. About a year ago, I happened to talk to a friend about it, and he helped the project greatly with his expertise in the field of self-publishing. It’s really to his credit that the poetry collection came out here like that.
Check out Qui Xiaolong's web site for book links and more.
This Friday, Bound to the Truth releases across all ebook platforms and in print with select retailers. Consider this your invitation to join the launch party--either in person or virtually.
In this third book in the Dreamslippers Series, Cat and Grace aren't sure they believe their client's claims about who killed up-and-coming Seattle architect Nina Howell. Did she really fall under the spell of a domineering, conservative talk show host? Bound to the Truth picks up with all three dreamslippers living under one roof in the Emerald City--and trying to date. The sexy theme gets readers up close and personal with Seattle's at times wacky sex-positive scene.
Here's how to join the party.
Dance with Me
photo credit: Regan House Photo
Yeah, that's right. On release day, I'm attending a Nia Jam at Embody Studio in Centralia, where we'll dance the routine Soul. This holistic dance practice figures prominently in Bound to the Truth, and in honor of that, I'm giving away five signed print copies at the event. If you've never danced Nia before, never fear! It's designed so that anyone at any level can drop into a class anytime. For more information, see the event Facebook page. Proceeds benefit the Standing Rock Donation Fund.
Come to the Book Signing
The day after the book's worldwide release, I'll be in person to chat and sign books along with five other local authors at Book 'n' Brush in Chehalis, Wash., located at the mid-way point between Portland and Seattle. That's two hours from either city.
Here's a write-up in the local paper about the event. Come on by between 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12 if you can. I'd love to see you.
Tell Your Friends
Our marketing budget is small and based on word-of-mouth, which is the best way to market anyway. Here are a couple of ready-made social media posts you can copy and paste to help spread the word. Of course, writing something in your own voice is always best, but we like the easy-button, too.
Like strong female leads and a good mystery? Try Lisa Brunette's Dreamslippers Series. The third book releases this Friday, and all three books are only 99 cents till then! Link: http://www.catintheflock.com/dreamslippers-series.html
Note: You can tag my author page if you want me to chime in: https://www.facebook.com/LisaBrunettePage1/
I recommend the Dreamslippers Series by @lisa_brunette - book 3 releases this week - all books #99cents till then! http://tinyurl.com/oqmyvwy
Other Social Media
Post the book covers to your Pinterest page, Instagram a photo of a Dreamslippers book, share blog posts to Google+ and elsewhere. Feel free to tag or hashtag me, too. I live for the online connection.
Review the Books
It only takes a few minutes to post a book review online, but the support this provides an author could last a long time. Reviews are absolutely crucial to a book's success, and they make authors feel good, too. After all, the reason we go through all the trouble of publishing is to share our words with readers. When you review a book, we know we've reached you.
All it takes is a star rating and a one- or two-sentence impression. If you don't like the books, please email me your thoughts. I'm always eager to improve and gobble up every bit of feedback.
Hit the Buy Button
Seriously, 99 cents is a steal for 5-star, full-novel-length reads. All three ebooks are priced this low in honor of the third book's release, so get 'em while they're hot! You can give ebooks as gifts, too. The first two books are available in print, ebook, and audiobook, and you can pre-order the third on ebook to lock in the 99-cent deal. Print is also available, with audiobook coming soon.
Thanks so much for your interest in and support of the Dreamslippers Series. It's been a wild ride putting out three novels in two years, and I'm the better writer for it.
One of the aspects of the mystery genre I appreciate least is the trope of violence against women. It's most obvious in the standard formula opening: A woman found dead, usually in an alley, maybe even a Dumpster. Sometimes she's nude, or in some state of undress. Usually, there's evidence of sexual assault. Often, she's a prostitute.
When I sat down to write my first novel, I chose the mystery genre with the express intent not to perpetuate this scenario. I didn't want to read about yet another woman's body in an alley, and I certainly wouldn't write about one. Now, two years after I released my first novel, the question takes on even greater meaning, as a probable real-life rapist was caught with his female victim, in an alley even, and nonetheless let off easy.
This isn't just politics, though. This is overall a craft concern. Writing cliches is boring work for the writer, and I would expect it to be a boring experience for readers, too.
I'm not saying writers shouldn't write--and readers shouldn't read--books with graphic violence in them, or that depict female victims. My books tackle sensitive, potentially trigger-inducing subjects: sexual repression, gay self-hatred, child-rape pornography, incest. But I went to great lengths not to glorify or portray these scenes and subjects gratuitously. I didn't want or need to contribute to the world's repository of violence porn.
The line, admittedly, isn't always right there in black and white, a complexity I explore in Framed and Burning:
And there she was, in triplicate. His wan heroine, his redheaded lady-child. She wasn’t yet eighteen, as he’d tried to capture in the budding quality of her breasts under a white tank top. She had an unnatural thinness about her as well, as if slightly malnourished. The whole time he’d painted her, he felt as if he wanted to save her. That was the attempt in painting her, to save her and rid himself of her haunting eyes at the same time. But he felt strongly now that he had failed. And in his failure, he’d simply failed her.
Mick, like the female members of his family, is a dreamslipper: He possesses the psychic ability to pick up other people's dreams. But while his sister and niece use the ability to solve crimes, Mick uses dreams as inspiration for his art. He reflects on the morality of this:
In the quiet of his studio, Mick walked over to the unfinished painting that was inspired by that dream of Cat’s. He remembered the shock on her face when she saw it. So much trouble, he thought. He reprimanded himself for what suddenly amounted to cheating, taking others’ ideas and making them his own in his art. Was it ethical? He thought about Candace telling him basically to butt out of her dreams. And he thought of the haunting look in the girl’s eyes in the triptych. And of his own limitations, just now with Rose.
Mick picked up a large brush, dipped it into a can of black paint, and crossed out the painting. Then he began to fill in with black everywhere the cross lines weren’t. Soon, he’d covered the canvas in nothing but black. The painting was gone.
In Bound to the Truth, the third book in the trilogy, the female victim is found dead in a hotel room, bound and gagged. While beginning with, and lingering on, the image of her dead body would arguably have given me a reliable commercial hook, I resisted it. For me it was more important for readers to come to know and care about the woman who becomes the so-called "vic." So many hardboiled cop show characters shorten the word victim to further depersonalize. This is supposed to be part of their character development, something they do in order to desensitize themselves to the work that no one wants to do. But still. Every "vic" becomes an abstract, a sea of female parts in an alley. To be grabbed, laughed over, brutalized.
The other perhaps curious choice I made with the quirky, cozy/suspense mashup that is the Dreamslippers Series has to do with magic.
These stories tackle the supernatural in a very realistic, modern way. My grandmother-granddaughter PI duo don't carry guns; they solve crimes using their ability to slip into suspects' dreams, supplemented by a host of New Age practices, not to mention tried-and-true investigative work.
I'd read books in which amateur sleuths with psychic abilities snap their fingers to unlock doors but somehow don't sense when the killer is following them. As a reader, these contradictions seem silly and frustrating. They're magic mush. I like to think stranger things truly do exist, but if they are there, they're subtle, unreliable, and decidedly unfocused. So I imagined what it would be like to have a psychic ability that functioned according to real-world rules, acknowledged here in a scene from Bound to the Truth:
Grace flashed on the silly ninja clown, and it gave her an idea. “Is there a way you can get close enough to the Waters’s home to dreamslip with Sam?”
“I don’t know, Gran. I’ve thought about it. The security is pretty tight out there. Unlike some of the other cases we’ve had, I’m not sure Mercer Island is the kind of place where you can get away with sleeping in a car out on the street. There’s also the possibility that I might pick up his kids’ dreams instead, or his wife’s.”
“Remember what I taught you about popping out of dreams you don’t want to be in, and of connecting with your target.”
“Yes,” said Cat. “But this super hero power of ours sure has its limitations..."
Cat does find a way to slip into this suspects' dreams, putting herself in a precarious spot in the process. Throughout the series, dreams help the duo solve three murders and bust a child-rape pornography ring. The dreams are helpful both for what they tell us about the villains--and for what they don't tell us.
These books haven't made me the next J.K. Rowling, though I'm grateful for and proud of the accolades, the numerous 5-star reviews, and the award noms. I know from my years at the story helm of a game-publishing company that there's often a disconnect between what the audience complains about and asks for and what they actually purchase. All I can do is keep developing my craft for a blend of commercial technique and groundbreaking newnesses that pushes the envelop and attracts a larger audience. Because the biggest lesson from the game industry for me is this: If the games don't sell, we all go home.
Buy the books.
Review the books.
Photo credit: Lisa Brunette.
It's tempting, when you're freelancing or otherwise working from a home office, to become a hermit. You're finally free of the crowded bus; you no longer have to endure the cutthroat competition for the microwave at lunchtime. Even pants are optional.
But after you've soaked up scrumptious solitude for a good while, you start to crave communication. Someone to bounce ideas off of. Alternative answers to the questions you ponder silently every day.
That's where writing conferences come in. As a writer, editor, and teacher with 25 years' experience, I've attended many conferences over my career, and I always learn something new at each one. At this year's Southwest Washington Writers Conference, there was plenty to absorb, from the art of cover design to the craft of villainy.
Author Kyle Pratt, who presented at the conference, with his mug on a cookie.
Having recently completed a cover vote-a-thon, I found Gorham Printing rep Kathy Campbell's presentation on cover design very interesting. I hadn't realized that male readers prefer blue covers or that Millennials have a thing for vintage photos from the 60s and 70s. (Hmm... wonder what that's all about... ).
Memoirist Jennifer Lauck's presentation served for me as the perfect follow-up to Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which I'd re-read right before the conference. Both Lauck and Dillard present a vision of the writing life that requires strong commitment, a dedication to the work, and an active reading practice. I loved Lauck's advice to read a book looking specifically for a particular aspect of structure, such as where and how to turn a scene or develop a character.
Author Carolyn McCray, me, and Kyle.
I felt more in the mood for craft discussions over business talk, but when I read Carolyn McCray's bio, I realized I couldn't miss her showdown with Kyle Pratt over whether or not to publish exclusively with Amazon. The two presented equally compelling models for how to make it as an indie writer. They've both achieved great success but with radically different approaches.
Which brings me to this: There are so many different ways to be a writer. Sure, you can get advice and take a lot of rules to heart, but the writing life is as wide open as the sky. For example, there's writer Terri Read, who's published more than 40 books with Harlequin since 1993. She thinks of writing in terms of layers of cake, and her process is very structured, to the point of adhering to a set formula. Another conference presenter, Jill Williamson, takes a less structured approach with her self-described "weird books." She devoted her whole talk to villains, pointing out cliches and arguing that "the best villains are the ones readers actually like."
Speaking of villains, get a load of these two. Just kidding - Kyle* and Pat are my fellow members of the Lewis County Writers Guild.
The most rewarding aspect of attending conferences is the opportunity to meet other writers. While there are always plenty of published and veteran authors in attendance, most of the people I meet are noobs just dipping a toe into the writing waters for the first time. So if you're holding back because you don't think you're experienced enough, let go of that right now. I hope to see you at the next one.
*I realize from the pics here it looks like I'm stalking Kyle Pratt. But I'm not. At least I don't think so. I think it's just that we're both becoming less camera-shy. ;)
Ta-da! You're looking at the cover for the next book in the Dreamslippers Series. Bound to the Truth releases November 11!
About the Book
The Dreamslippers are a family of PIs who solve crimes using their ability to 'slip' into your dreams. But that isn't easy.
In Bound to the Truth, the dreamslippers are hired to investigate the murder of an up-and-coming Seattle architect. Did Nina Howell really fall under the spell of a domineering, conservative talk show host--as her wife claims? Or will Nina's buried past lead the dreamslippers down a twisting--and twisted--path to the truth? Find out as they chase a killer while navigating the kinky Seattle dating world. When Cat and Granny Grace hit the fetish scene, hilarity is sure to ensue!
Read an excerpt here.
The novel is now available to pre-order, which you should do because you want to see me live to write another book.
Cover Vote Results
Thanks to everyone who voted for a favorite cover. In contrast to my previous cover vote-a-thons, this time there was no clear winner, with three tied for first place, earning 22 votes each.
Those were #1, #4, and #5:
We considered all three of these very carefully. In the end, we decided on #4, but with the colored smoke effect from both #1 and #5 added, which I believe drew a lot of people to choose them since it made those covers a better match with the first two books in the series. We love, love, LOVE the new cover, so thank you for your votes, ideas, and arguments.
We've never had a tie before, so this was new territory. Since the final cover is #4 with aspects of #5 and #1, everyone who voted for all three will get a free ebook copy of Bound to the Truth when it releases November 11. You're welcome! And all of those voters' names will go into the pot for the drawing for the signed print copy. This applies only to voters who followed instructions and sent their votes by email, by the way, or voted on the blog, which auto-sends me a note with an email address attached. I'm a one-woman shop here and can't track voters down across all social media, yo.
Why Why Why?
If you didn't vote for #4 and are all like, "wha...?", here's a peek inside our decision to pick that one out of the three-way tie.
Ultimately, I balked at the idea of putting a collar on the cover, both because several voters said it screamed "50 Shades" (a reaction I'm not actually going for here) and because it doesn't quite fit the plot. I also liked the idea of continuing a human figure on the cover, and I wasn't opposed to showing more of her even though the first two covers don't. The problem with #5, though, was that the female figure resembles neither of my protagonists nor the victim, so what exactly would that foreshadow?
A couple of other points about the three above. A few voters said they didn't like the cursive "to the," and I agreed. As much as I love that nightstand, cover #1 didn't seem to mesh enough with the first two books in the series, plus the collar issue.
We got some interesting ideas out of the mix, like this variation in which voter Stan Brown tried to make more of an obvious handcuff out of the bracelet in #5:
A lot of my reasoning for choosing #4 I can't totally explain without spoilers, but I will say that my cover designer and I both loved that one best, and to sweeten the pot, the figure on that cover was a dead ringer for my vic, from her hair to the more conservative style of dress than you see in #5. The duct tape across the mouth is flippin' perfect. I mean, gah. I fell for that hard, and I love how the three covers harmonize with each other across the series instead of looking like perfect matches, which to my eye always seems a bit boring, as if I'm going to read several variations of the same story. This does it for me, and I hope readers feel the same way:
Thanks again for playing along. Now pre-order the book and tell everyone you know to do the same! The Dreamslippers will love you for it, and me? I might not go hungry.