“Top Crime Writer” Roger Jon Ellory: A Peek Inside His Life

Roger Jon Ellory is a British thriller writer who will knock your socks off. (Trust me—I’ve read two of his works and both times, up and away…) His international bestseller, A Quiet Belief in Angels, is a lyrical, haunting tale about a boy growing up in the midst of a serial killer during the 1950s—a story I doubt I’ll forget. His recent release, A Quiet Vendetta, is the only mafia-centered book I’ve enjoyed—okay, or finished. I wanted to race through it and savor each page at once. Mystery People, USA said it “solidifies him as one of the top crime writers today.”

 

Here’s what others are saying about A Quiet Vendetta:

“The kidnapping of 19-year-old Catherine Ducane, daughter of Louisiana governor Charles Ducane, and the brutal murder of her driver set the stage for this absorbing crime novel from Ellory (A Simple Act of Violence) covering more than 50 years of mob violence and American history.” — Publisher’s Weekly

“This is a sprawling masterpiece covering 50 years of the American Dream gone sour. Real people and events are mixed in with fictional characters in this striking novel that brings to mind the best of James Ellroy.”— The Good Book Guide

“Beautifully written, this is a novel to get lost in and one that is a long ride into the darkness, and if you recall reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as a teenager (as I did), then this is a powerful book that will make you relive that memory – masterful, but beware of the brutality, because it comes out of the most literate prose I have read in many years.” — Deadly Pleasures

I’m thrilled and honored to share Roger Ellory with you today.

AM: What inspired you to pursue a writing career?

RE: I was always creatively minded, right from an early age. My primary interests were in the fields of art, photography, music—such things as this. Not until I was twenty-two did I consider the possibility of writing. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about a book he was reading and he was so enthusiastic! I thought, ‘It would be great to create that kind of an effect.’ That evening—back in November of 1987—I started writing my first book, and over the next six years I wrote a total of 23 novels. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I think it just took me those first twenty-two years of my life to really discover what I wanted to do. Now it seems like such a natural part of me and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

AM: How is your career different than/similar to what you expected? 

RE: I think the main difference between what I expected and how it actually is, is the sheer quantity of self-generated promotion and travel that’s involved. The year before last I went to forty-nine cities in eleven countries in seven months. During that time I was home for a total of seventeen days, and there isn’t a great deal of writing that can be done while you’re on the road like that. I’ve just returned from ten days in France, and have already done a US tour this year, along with Norway and a couple of other places…

It is great to meet readers, and really gives you a chance to get some feedback, but it isn’t writing. John Lennon once said, “Find something you love and you’ll never work another day.” I love doing this, and I do enjoy the travelling, and I have no complaints. But I never figured that learning another language would be necessary!

AM: What’s your typical writing day like?

RE: I start early in the day. I try and produce three or four thousand words a day, and work on the basis of getting a first draft done in about twelve weeks. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes shorter. I buy a new notebook, a good quality one, because I know I’m going to be carrying it around for two or three months, and in the notebook I write down ideas as I go. Little bits of dialogue, things like that. Sometimes I have a title, sometimes not. I used to feel very strongly about having a good title before I started, but now—because at least half the books I’ve published have ended up with a different title—I am not so obsessive about it! Also, with the travelling commitments, I have to be more disciplined, so I aim to write three chapters a day. Then I practice guitar for two or three hours and handle all my e-mails and admin stuff—all the things that go along with the public aspect of being a writer.

AM: What value do you see in conferences and other literary events?

RE: I think you can’t avoid it these days. I think you have to do it, regardless of whether or not you want to. The attention of the literary press is overwhelmed with new books all the time, and you cannot hope for reviews. Besides, awards and reviews tend not to sell books, but word-of-mouth does, and the only way to get that kind of thing started is to go out there and meet people. Also, if you turn up someplace for a festival, the press tends to be there. And that’s when your name and the name of your book wins up in the newspapers and magazines.

AM: Why did you write A Quiet Vendetta?

RE: I’ve  always possessed a deep and profound interest in the Mafia—a deep fascination with organised crime, with the way in which a family can become an empire which can control a city or a country for years and years. Additionally, there is the issue of the family itself. The Mafia was all about family, loyalty to family. I am always looking for the emotional connection in a story, and with this one it was easy—the sense of loyalty engendered in people for no other reason than blood.

Also, I wanted to write a novel about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet write him in such a way as that when the reader comes to the end of the book they have almost forgiven him, they perhaps have some understanding of why he was how he was, why he did the things he did and perhaps even wish him to evade the law. That was the idea behind the book, and from what people have told me I seem to have accomplished that.

Vendetta holds a special place for me. It was written very quickly, in about eight weeks, and I worked at it for many hours every day. I wanted to write it quickly. I knew it was going to be a big novel, and I knew that if I took months and months to write it then it would perhaps read very slowly. I wanted to get the work done rapidly so as to keep some of the energy and immediacy that comes from working that fast.

AM: A Quiet Vendetta is based on real events. What was your research process like?

RE: I researched the factual and historical aspects of the book as I went. I ‘lived’ in that world for all that time. I spent all my waking hours thinking about the story, about the characters, about what would happen. I do not work out books before I start them. I do not do outlines or a synopsis. I just start with the first scene and a basic idea of what I want the book to be about, and then I think about it and plot it as I go. It is often the case that I do not know how the book will end until I am thirty or forty pages away from completing it.

Research-wise, I wound up with many hundreds of pages of notes, books, biographies, documentation from court cases, dozens and dozens of photographs. They all played a part in trying to recreate that world within which these characters lived.

AM: You’re a talented musician—which seems to be a common thread among my favorite authors. What role does music play in your writing? Is there a correlation between the two?

RE: I have always been passionate about music, and just as I found a great empathy in American literature, I found a great empathy in jazz and blues and country music. Someone once told me that music was the way in which one person translated their emotions into sounds, and then gave those sounds to someone else who translated them back into emotion for themselves. I agree with this.

I think good literature works on an emotional level, and I definitely feel that good music works on an emotional level. As far as long improvisations are concerned, I am not so much this kind of musician.  I like to conceive of a song that I write as delivering an emotional message, and when the message is delivered the song is done. The response from music is so much more immediate than from literature, so a novel—taking months to write, and the another year before it is in print—is a much slower process than writing a song in two hours and then going down to a bar and playing it for people that same evening. There is a great pleasure in both activities. I say that music is my religion and writing is my philosophy, or maybe it’s the other way around!

AM: If you could speak to your younger self, before your career took off, what would you say?

RE: Not a great deal different from the things the younger me said to the younger me! Stick with it, persist, persevere, don’t ever quit, don’t change what you’re writing because you think something else will be more commercially successful. Maybe I would tell myself to be a little less anxious about the future, but then I think that the anxiety I felt about failure gave me a lot of drive, and without that drive I would not have persisted.

AM: What are your top tips for up-and-coming authors?

RE: I believe the worst kind of book you can write is the book that you believe other people will enjoy. I believe the best kind of book you can write is the one that you yourself would like to read. I don’t think they should look for a barnstorming opening. I don’t think they should look for anything as a kind of ‘magic paragraph’ or opening line.  Write the book that interests you. Your own enthusiasm for the subject will come through. That enthusiasm will then be contagious.

I think that a lot of truly extraordinary and very successful books don’t work as ideas on paper, but because of the way in which they have been written or constructed, they have worked, and worked wonderfully. Books that tell you how to write a bestseller in thirty days…well, I don’t know what to say. I think great stories come from people and their experiences in life, not from formulas.

Beyond that, you have to persevere, persist and never give up.  Keep sending that book out. Get an agent. Get someone working with you who is as enthusiastic as you are about your work. And then just keep going! One quote that kept me going was from Disraeli: “Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose.”

AM: What do you hope readers reap from your work?

RE: Well with me, a book always begins with the emotion I want to evoke in the reader. I think the books that we love the most, the books that define our lives, the books that we always recommend to people, are those that have touched us emotionally. If I am trying to do anything with my writing, I am attempting to connect with people on an emotional level. For me, the most important thing is that once somebody has finished reading my books they might not necessarily remember the name of the book, even the plot details, but they will remember how it made them feel.

Some of the greatest books ever published, the ones that rightfully regarded as classics, are books that have a very simple storyline, but a very rich and powerful emotional pull. It’s the emotion that makes them memorable and special. I think that’s the key with great books, as far as I am concerned—to always be emotionally engaging. That is what I am always working towards, and what I think makes my books a little different.

AM: What’s next in the pipeline for you?

RE: I have a new book out in the UK in May called A Dark and Broken Heart and I have just completed a book called The Devil and The River which will be published here in June of 2013. Today, I am about to begin the novel for 2014, as yet untitled, but once this interview is complete I will be starting that new work.

Music-wise, with The Whiskey Poets, we have just posted a little video that someone shot at one of our gigs on YouTube, we are selling the EP we recorded, and we are working towards getting a tour together. That’s exciting for me, and I am looking forward to being on a musical road as well as the book tour road! I have some upcoming books events, and I will be in Toulouse, France and Knowlton, Canada and also at Bouchercon in Ohio. I am also going to Florida to do some workshops for the Florida Writers’ Association which will be great.

For more information, check out Roger’s website and follow him on Twitter.

****
He’s terrific, right? I know he’d love to hear your thoughts, so please, share away. Also, the first person to email me (august at augustmclaughlin dot com) will receive a free copy of A Quiet Vendetta. All I ask is that you post a review in return. Thanks, gang!

Controversial Blog Posts: How to Make them Work

Any topic can stir up controversy. As a health journalist, I can rest assured that someone will passionately disagree with any article’s content. Someone will claim that carrots are wellness-breakers. Another will argue that all meat is toxic. Others are so passionate about a particular lifestyle, they fight for it. Passion can be a great thing, and so can controversy.

Controversial issues run the gamut, from highly debatable topics, like religion, ethics and politics, to the less obvious, like books, fitness and fashion. If varying opinions exist, heated debate can follow. Though journalism and blogging are very different animals, I believe that a little controversy can help or hinder both.

Reasons (and Examples) You Might Cover a Controversial Topic

  • To express your opinion. You feel strongly about traditional versus nontraditional publishing, a new law that was passed or a personal experience and dang it, you’re gonna blog about it!
  • To educate or inspire others. You have expertise in education or medicine and use your blog as a platform to share it with others. (Writer and therapist Louise Behiel does a fantastic job of this on her blog.) Whether intentional or not, the topics you feel compelled to write about could very well be controversial.
  • To engage readers. You have a fair number of readers, but your comments have been sparse. So you dip into a controversy topic to stimulate conversation. This is one of the top ways to gain more comments on your blog, according to social media strategist and blogging pro, David Murton.
  • To attract more readers. You primarily write about books and authors. To attract readers with other interests, you cover an environmental or social issue. Social media sends people passionate about the new issue your way. (I’m personally not a fan of controversy for the sake of boosted numbers, but some writers swear by it.)
  • To have fun and entertain. Not all controversial topics are heavy. Some are downright funny. I always enjoy Piper Bayard’s series, The End is Near (and we deserve it!). Her last segment featured the question, Would you get a vibrating tattoo? (Need I say more???)

Weighing the Risks

Whenever we cover a controversial topic, we run the risk of misunderstandings and hurt feelings—ours and readers.’ (News alert: Writers are sensitive! ;)) Even if we present information respectfully, readers might not follow suit. If you bring up popular myths, you’re up against the mass media microphone. And we never know when we’ll strike a sensitive chord with someone; it’s possible we’ll unintentionally open wounds. And though we might attract new readers in the process, we risk losing others—particularly if we shock readers with a strong opinion piece or present our case poorly. Intense debates can also be exhausting for the writer—especially if we’ve shared strong personal opinions. (If you thrive on debate, that’s another story.)

I can hear some of you thinking, Gee, August. Sounds lovely. Think I’ll stick to songs about socks. But wait! There’s good news. Lots can be done to write about controversial topics while minimizing the risks. I compiled the following suggestions, based on my experience and observations.

Ways to Handle Controversial Topics with Success

1. If you feel so heated you might explode, take a breath before posting. We all have experiences that light a match inside us. Writing about such experiences pronto can make for passionate, but poorly thought out posts. Writing in this state can be therapeutic, but publishing? Not necessarily. Get your thoughts out, yes. But wait to finalize and publish your post until you’ve cooled down. Exercise. Sleep. Drink some water. Re-evalute. If and when you feel confident, publish it.

2. Choose topics you care about. This may seem obvious, but knowing that controversy can boost numbers might tempt us to cover any sticky issue or buzz word. The most popular Google search may be Kim Kardashian’s latest fling, but covering it with little knowledge or concern could come off as disingenuous. Rather than seek out controversy, let it evolve naturally. When I cover controversial topics, it’s because I feel compelled to do so.

3. Do your research. Even if you have boat loads of knowledge on a topic, take some time to read the latest research before posting. I have a hefty background in nutrition, but I don’t craft posts purely with my know-how or experience. Why? Because things have changed since college. Maybe even since yesterday. I also feel I owe it to readers to provide fact-based information and current studies. Opinion pieces are different, of course. In either case, research can strengthen posts.

4. Consider your sources. Using sources that aren’t credible can be worse than no sources at all when it comes to fact-based, informative pieces. An M.D. might seem credible, but if your topic is eye health, you probably don’t want to talk to a cardiologist. Quoting a self-proclaimed expert without verifiable experience and credentials—also risky. Ask yourself why readers should listen to a particular person or study. If you don’t know, keep seeking. For lots more on this topic, check out my earlier post, Truthiness: Raising the Bar in the Blogosphere and Using Research and Evidence, featured by Purdue University.

5. When you share your opinion, make it known. Personal experience can make for fantastic research and post fuel. If you present opinions as fact, however, the follow-up discussion may not be of the healthy, constructive variety. You could also mislead readers or lose their respect. Being forthright and inviting others’ opinions makes way for healthy discussion.

6. Consider your motivation. Are you posting on a topic to inform? Entertain? Simply to vent? (If venting’s your goal, you may want to reconsider—unless that’s part of your blogging identity.) If you want to stimulate conversation without expressing your view, present both sides of a topic. Then end with a question, like, “What do you think?” The motivation behind your blog also matters. Blogs written by romance authors, for example, can generally discuss sex with ease. If you write children’s books, however, sexual themes are risky. Kristen Lamb makes a great case for avoiding certain topics in her post, Deadly Doses—Politics, Religion and Our Author Platform.

7. Respect your readers. No, they may not all agree with you. Some may give you a hard time. But if the post and discussion seem like nasty brawls, no one will have fun. If you handle challenging comments with grace, on the other hand, your readers will respect you in return. And remember, if your aim is stimulating debate, you want various viewpoints. Welcome them. Opposing views are what make controversies controversial. (For an example of respectful discussion, check out the comments on my last post. You’re all awesome! :))

8. Aim for optimism. A little humor can go a long way toward preventing and easing tension. And in general, I don’t think most readers want to be depressed. ;) If you can, point out the good in a situation or offer solutions to the dilemma you pose. At the very least, end on a positive note. Complaining then ending with an “oh well, like stinks” type conclusion doesn’t provide much takeaway for readers.

9. If you feel you must write it, do. Some of the most controversial books, articles and paintings are also some of the most celebrated and esteemed. If you feel the need to express an opinion or argument, I say do it—in whatever way you feel you must. Think it through, guide your passion with logic and go for it. Freedom of speech exists for good reason.

What are your thoughts on controversial blog topics? Have you covered or shied away from them? Been impressed or frustrated by another’s approach? I love hearing from you!

In Support of GM Food Labels

Wanna hear something ironic? I’ll tell you anyway. ;) I was putting the final touches on a post about controversial blog topics when I realized that a petition regarding a highly controversial issue—genetically modified foods—is about to wrap up. And once again, I can’t keep my mouth shut  feel compelled to speak up.

The GM food debate is raging, with intriguing arguments on both sides. The World Health Organization defines GM foods as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” It’s done for numerous reasons, including supply and demand, financial gain and, believe or not, health. Corn, cotton and soy are the current biggies; they’ve been genetically modified since the mid-90s to make a variety of foods and products, including high-fructose corn syrup and loads of other processed foods.

Supporters of GM foods believe they can benefit consumers by creating more nutritious, abundant crops and plants more resistant to disease. Opponents fear various health risks, including allergic reactions and resistance to antibiotics. Though we’re lacking evidence that GM foods pose health risks—at least so far—and some research points to benefits, I believe that we should have the right to choose whether or not our foods have been genetically altered. (So do most Americans, according to ABC News.)

Do you prefer to know what you’re eating?

GE food labels are required by many countries worldwide, including 15 European countries, China, Japan and Russia. If you feel that the U.S. should follow suit, please visit the Center for Food and sign the petition by Tuesday, March 27th. And please pass it on.

Regardless of the outcome of the labeling law, here are some ways to help ensure that your foods are nutrient-rich and contain little, if any, genetically modified ingredients:

1. Buy organic. Yes, I know it’s pricey. But if you can swing it, I believe it’s worth it. To save money, opt for seasonal and frozen items, cook rather than dine out more often and… see #2. ;)

2. Shop at your local farmers market. Not only will you save money, most likely, you’ll support your local farms. You may also gain appreciation for food by connecting with the growers. We don’t think enough about where our food comes from, IMHO.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Even non-organic produce is a great option as far as genetic engineering goes. (So far attempts at altering potatoes and tomatoes both flopped.) To save money, stock up on frozen produce. Because frozen fruits and veggies are flash frozen at their nutritional prime, they are at least as nutritious as fresh produce that’s been around for days or weeks.

4. Cut back on meat and/or choose grass-fed beef. Many other cows consume genetically modified corn. As Michael Pollan pointed out in an NPR interview, many of the GM foods we consume, come to use indirectly—through animals that eat them. And by eating less animal protein, we have more room our diets and funds in our banks for those fabulous plants. ;) Super nutritious plant protein sources include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Opting for fish instead of meat is another great option.

5. Emphasize whole foods. Most GM foods consumed in the U.S. come in the form of processed foods. By filling our grocery carts, kitchens and plates with primarily whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes and seeds, we eat fewer GM ingredients and reap a broad range additional benefits, from improved cardiovascular health and weight control to better sleep quality, energy and moods.

For more information, check out these fantastic links:
U.S. Health News: 10 Ways to Save Money on Organic Food
New York Times: Michael Pollan Answers Readers’ Questions
One Green Generation: Gardening 101: My Top 12 Easy Vegetables to Grow From Seed
MayoClinic.com: Organic Foods: Are They Safer? More Nutritious? 

What are your thoughts on GM foods? When given a choice, do you opt for organic? What steps do you take to ensure that your diet is nutritious and delicious? I love hearing your thoughts.

Writing Paw Prints: Which Pooch Are You?

Given the skills, would Snowball write like him, too?

According to ASPCA, every dog has a canine-ality, the way we humans have personalities. They’ve even established assessment criteria to help you determine your best pooch match.

Of the many special dogs I’ve had in my life, a few top the charts. Each one relates to a writing personality, in my humble non-professional opinion. Keeping in mind that I’m not a psychologist—i.e., I may be way off!—which one sounds like you? (FYI, dog comparisons are huge compliments in my book. You’re welcome!!! ;))

Nikki: The Savvy Spaniel
I fell in love with dogs because of Nikki. In her illustrious 13 years, she fulfilled her role as family dog—playing, exercising and tending to her humans—to a tee. When she had puppies, though, nothing came before them. She was a loving caregiver, through and through.

Nikki reminds me of you writers who wear multiple hats—parent, teacher, student, full-time day gigger, blogger, novelist. (The list goes on…) You’re a natural teacher, giver and friend. If you have a downside, it’s your tendency to please others before and more so than yourself. Lucky for all of us, your compassionate, loving nature radiates in your work, and you pass your creativity and stories on to others.

Eunice: The Tenacious Trooper
My friends, Tom and Heidi, lovingly took Eunice in after she was injured and abandoned. Though she was already upward in years and her back legs no longer worked, she was one of the happiest, sweetest dogs I’ve encountered. A lover of all-things-edible, this beagle could hunt down and snatch up any morsel in the neighborhood—no matter how much time or effort it took.

If you are a tenacious trooper, you pursue your creative goals with fierce determination. You plod along slowly, but smartly; every step counts and rushing seems impossible. You see the challenges life throws your way as opportunities and never, ever give up. You have a hearty appetite for life and take time to enjoy the sunshine. Though you may feel that accomplishments seldom come easy, Eunice’s legacy is proof that your work will pay off.

Zoe: The Determined Dasher
Some might call Zoe my furry other half. She’s about that big. When I first adopted her, she’d sprint after squirrels at the park, only to leave me “skiing” behind her. (Picture a waterskier on dirt, and a dog in place of the boat.) She’s determined, passionate and fast—when she wants to be. When she doesn’t, it’d be easier to sway a concrete wall. Much like her owner *clears throat* accomplishing feats she’s disinterested in takes discipline and reinforcement. (Yep, I’m totally buying new jeans once I finish my taxes…)

If you’re a determined dasher, you pursue your goals with gusto supreme. You enter writing furies and could stay there for weeks on end. When faced with a deadline, you meet it, probably early. Without some discipline, your passionate nature could cause you pain, and patience doesn’t come easy. That same passionate, go-getter attitude keeps you moving forward and opens doors. As long as you guide with logic and remind yourself to take breaks, you do just fine.

So I’m dying to know. Does a particular pooch resonate with you? If not, what pet or animal matches your creative style?

Speaking of dogs, a quick shout out to author/blogger/animal behavior extraordinaire, Amy Shojai who landed a publishing deal for her thriller, Lost and Found. CONGRATS, AMY! Check out her fantastic blog here.

Gluten-Free Diets: Useful Tools or Harmful Trend?

“Claims [about gluten-free diets] seem to increase daily, with no adequate scientific support to back them up. This clamor has increased and moved from the Internet to the popular press, where gluten has become the new diet villain.” — Celiac researchers Antonio Di Sabatino, MD, and Gino Roberto Corazza, MD, Annals of Internal Medicine

If you avoid gluten, you are far from alone. Research shows that about 25 percent of Americans avoid gluten and only 10 percent of people following gluten-free diets have a physiological need. In 2010, Americans spent $2.64 billion on gluten-free prepared foods. And gluten-free package claims have more than doubled since 2006. So it comes as no surprise that many health experts and food manufacturers are calling gluten-free diets the low-carb diet trend of the 21st century.

Any time we make a dramatic shift in our diets, we open ourselves up to potential risks and benefits. And since many gluten-free dieters have fallen pray to the mad marketing machine known as the diet industry—and we all know the risks dieting can pose—I couldn’t keep my mouth shut resist highlighting some vital information. Before making the decision to avoid gluten, unless you’ve been medically advised to do so, I feel there are several questions worth answering.

What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein that occurs naturally in grains, including wheat, barley and rye. It’s also prevalent in grain-based foods, like breads, cereals, crackers, cookies and cakes, and in less obvious foods and products, like soy sauce, meat marinades, malt vinegar and certain dietary supplements.

When does it cause problems?
While most people digest gluten with ease, your immune system sees it as toxic if you have celiac disease—an inherited autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine lining and disrupts nutrient absorption. It affects less than 1 percent of the population, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, tends to run in families and can coexist with other diseases, like diabetes. Symptoms may include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, anemia, joint pain, delayed growth (in children), skin rashes and unintentional weight loss. Treatment involves lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.

Gluten sources also cause serious problems if you have a wheat allergy, which also triggers immune system reactions. Wheat is one of the eight most common diagnosed food allergies, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, which collectively affect about 2 percent of adults and 8 percent of children.

If you have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, a gluten-free diet is vital.

You can also have a gluten sensitivity, or “celiac lite.” In this case, your body reacts negatively to gluten, without any autoimmune reaction. Symptoms are similar to celiac disease, but milder: diarrhea, bloating, indigestion, fatigue and abdominal cramping.

Gluten sensitivity is tougher to pinpoint because many people claim to react adversely to gluten, but show no diagnosable symptoms. This doesn’t mean that the condition isn’t legitimate. Some thorough investigation, however, can help ensure that your nutritional needs are met and save you the time, money and stress that often accompanies gluten restriction.

Here are some examples of a misdiagnosed/misperceived gluten sensitivity:

  • You feel better after cutting gluten solely because you end up eating fewer processed foods.
  • Your “carb sensitivity” is actually a case of poor blood sugar control. (Carb sensitivity isn’t an actual condition; you can be sugar or insulin sensitive, but we all need more carbohydrates than any other macronutrient.)
  • The placebo effect: Believing we are doing something healthy for our bodies can go along way toward feeling better and vice versa; negative beliefs about foods can trigger physical symptoms. Put another way, fearing gluten can cause sensitivity symptoms.
  • You experience less gas and hunger after switching to a high-protein, low-carb gluten-free diet not because of you’ve eliminated gluten, but because starchy foods naturally cause gas during digestion—a normal/good thing—and because protein-rich foods are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes than, say, sugary sweets and breads.
  • You feel gassy and bloated after reintroducing grains into a grain-free or low-carb diet. This is not generally proof that your body is intolerant to gluten or grains. More often it’s a sign that you’ve been lacking fiber-rich, starchy foods. (To avoid this, gradually reintroduce grains and other fiber-rich foods. In healthy individuals, the digestive system readjusts.)
  • You follow the diet as a means of restricting your food intake, establishing a sense of control, as a coping mechanism for non-diet-related stress and/or to lose weight. These factors often reflect disordered eating: a range of disordered eating thoughts or behaviors not affiliated with a full-fledged eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia. Though less life-threatening than eating disorders, it’s no way to live and no less worthy of addressing.

What are the benefits of a gluten-free diet?

  • If you are legitimately intolerant or sensitive to gluten, a gluten-free diet relieves most or all of your symptoms, leading to a comfier life. The diet that seems restrictive to many, brings freedom.
  • While the jury is still out and research mixed, some experts believe that avoiding gluten may benefit children with autism and other brain-related disorders.
  • If a GF diet heightens leads you to eat more nutritious foods in better balance, you’ll reap the benefits of most healthy diets: strong immune, brain and digestive function, improved energy, moods and sleep quality, healthy weight control and more.

What are the gluten-free diet risks?

  • Many people avoiding gluten avoid whole grains and other nutritious foods. This is a major reason many gluten-free diets often lack iron, calcium, B-vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate) and fiber. Many studies support this. Research published by the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, for example, showed that gluten-free diets worsened nutrient deficiencies in teens with and without celiac disease. Nutrient deficiencies* can cause a slew of complications, such as fatigue, muscle weakness, headaches, dizziness, weak bones, depressive moods, sleep problems, foggy thinking, dry skin, brittle hair and digestive problems.
  • If you replace gluten-containing foods with gluten-free substitutes, like GF breads, cakes, flours, cereals, chips and pancakes, you may spend a lot of money on products that are equally or less nutritious than the original. You may also find yourself buying and eating more chips, cakes and breads than you used to, simply because the “gluten-free” label leads you to believe it’s healthier. (Remember the fat-free days? Fat-free ice cream can seem so much healthier. It’s actually higher in sugar than conventional ice cream and more likely to trigger overeating.)
  • If your GF diet is also low in carbohydrates, you hold heightened risks for constipation, gallstones, kidney stones, bad breath, headaches, reduced metabolism, weight gain and ketoacidosis—a dangerous condition in which your body uses fat as energy.
  • Deprivation, frustration and surrender. A GF diet can be difficult to follow, particularly if many of your staple or favorite foods are eliminated and you lack the support of a qualified professional. You may feel deprived and frustrated and fall of the proverbial wagon, all of which increases your risk of binge eating, weight gain, poor body image, increased stress and depression, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

*Dietary supplements are a valuable option if you struggle with nutrient malabsorption, which is common with celiac disease, or can’t eat a healthy diet for other reasons. Otherwise, whole foods are your best bet.

So are gluten-free diets useful or a harmful trend? Both. I believe that GF-diets are a saving grace to people with a medical need and a potentially harmful—or at least needless—trend for others.

If you believe you have a gluten sensitivity, I recommend seeking guidance from a qualified health care professional, such as your physician, dietitian or gastroenterologist, who can conduct medical tests and guide you through an elimination diet, as needed.

I want you all to feel and be as healthy as possible while getting not only nutrients, but joy, from your food. Whether you avoid gluten or not, the following foods can help fill in the nutrient gaps common in GF lifestyles:

Calcium: Canned salmon, tuna and sardines, tofu, yogurt, fortified milk (rice, soy, cow’s, almond), kefir, kale, almonds
B-vitamins:  Fish, seafood, GF fortified corn/rice/oat cereals, eggs, lean meats, enriched long-grain rice, enriched GF breads and tortillas
Iron: Fish, seafood, lean meats, beans, lentils, beans, tofu
Fiber: Beans, lentils, chickpeas, green peas, sweet potatoes, skin-on baked potatoes, kale, broccoli, raspberries, popcorn, GF oatmeal, flaxseeds, prunes, pears

For more information, check out these fantastic resources:
Forbes Magazine: What We’re (Not) Eating: A Potential Danger of Gluten-Free
Today’s Dietitian: Putting the Healthy into Gluten-Free
MayoClinic.com: Food Sensitivity Vs. Intolerance: What’s the Difference?
EatingWell.com: Healthy Gluten-Free Lunch Recipes

Do you avoid gluten? What benefits or challenges have you faced? Do you see gluten-free diet popularity as a trend or progression in the nutritional world? I welcome your thoughts!

Genre Love Stories: How Did You Fall?

I was twelve years old and babysitting, at least in body. In my mind, I was Jenny MacPartland—a single woman who’d been knocked punch-drunk breathless in love with an alluring man she at a trendy New York art gallery. While the real, live characters—i.e., the kids—played in the background, I stayed with Jenny as she began discovering clues to Mr. Seemed-So Right’s sordid past. As her marriage and life neared their perceivable ends, so did my babysitting career. (I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say it involved twin toddlers, one’s digestive issues, a locked bathroom and some unusual, um, “artwork…”)

Mary Higgins Clark’s A Cry in the Night had me at page one.

During middle school, mysteries and thrillers saved me from math and science class boredom, kept me entertained during lengthy car rides and distracted me from insecurities that run too rampant in teens. After high school, the spine chillers kept me company at New York modeling castings and became my only “friends” in an apartment full of roommates by whom I felt intimidated. One clue that I was in dire straits later on, while living in Paris, was the fact that I couldn’t enjoy the stories I’d so loved.

So, it came as no surprise when my first novel turned into a thriller—before I had a grasp of genres, much less which one my story suited. I suppose the takeaway from my genre love story—likely from yours, too ;)—is this: Read and write what you love. Oh, and if you have kids, do not hire a hyper-focused daydreaming girl with a book bag…

What’s your genre love story?

Why ‘Carb’ is Not a Cuss Word

“I hate you! You make me feel bad about myself! You’re such a….carb!”

If the word ‘carb’ carries a negative connotation for you, drawing up anxiety, frustration or shame, you’re not alone. Large-scale consumer research shows that roughly 25% of Americans are currently dieting. And low-carb, high-protein diets are among the most popular.

Before I explain why carbohydrates play a hugely important role in our diets, let’s examine why we’ve grown to detest the marvelous macronutrients in the first place:

1. Processed carbohydrate-rich foods, like cakes, cookies, candy, white bread and chips, are easy to overeat. (And trust me, commercial food makers know this.) Many are also low in vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber.

2. Overeating any food routinely causes the body to store excess energy as fat. So just as the dieting industry advised us to cut fat from our high-fat diets in the 90s, it advises us to cut carbs from our high-calorie, high-carb diets for weight control nowadays. Americans spend over $45 billion dollars on dieting each year. So it’s no surprise that messages of “low-carb” are widespread throughout the media.

Think about it. Why would an industry that profits on our inability to reach or maintain a healthy body weight promote a technique that works long-term? Hmm…

Low-Carb Diet Risks
Low-carb diets often trigger initial weight loss, in the form of water weight—not fat loss, or as a result of consuming fewer calories. Like other diets, low-carb diets have an extremely low long-term success rate. More often, they lead to weight gain, binge eating behaviors, and a significantly increased risk for obesity and obesity-related health problems, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer and heart disease.

Low-carb diets are typically high in protein and fat. Eating excessive amounts of protein or fat needs leads to weight gain. High-protein, low-carb diets also tend to lack fiber, which increases your risk for constipation, diverticulitis and other digestive problems.

Limiting carbs interferes with brain function. This is why psychologists have coined the term “Atkins attitude,” which refers to increased anger, frustration and depression among low-carb dieters, according to Judith Wurtman, the director of the Women’s Health Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Carbohydrates are the body’s and brain’s main fuel source. We need sufficient amounts to exercise, build and use muscles, think properly and sleep well. 

Carbs and the Brain
After we eat carbohydrates, they enter our bloodstream in the form of glucose. Because the brain doesn’t store glucose, it requires a steady supply from food. Once in the brain, glucose allows the brain to produce feel-good chemicals, like serotonin, which promotes positive moods. Carbohydrates also enhance memory skills…

In a study conducted at the University of Toronto, senior citizens were given a meal of cereal, milk and fruit juice for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, they showed significantly better memory function compared to senior citizens who did not consume the carbohydrate-rich meal.

Carbs and Muscles
Contrary to popular belief, amping up our protein intake and skimping on carbs does not facilitate muscle growth or toning. Our muscles rely on glycogen for fuel—a form of sugar that derives from carbohydrates. While building muscle, our protein needs bump up to 15 to 20 percent of our diets, according to the American Dietetic Association. No benefits have been shown by consuming more. Avoiding carbs, on the other hand, promotes early workout fatigue and lean tissue loss.

Healthy Carbs and Weight Control
Nutritious carbohydrate sources, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, are top sources of fiber. Fiber promotes fullness between meals and guards against obesity-related health risks. So it’s no surprise that many studies have linked diets rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables with positive, lasting weight control.

Simple Ways to Get the Most From Carbs

Choose whole over processed most of the time. For optimum health, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—a report based on loads of research and dietary expert insight, recommends eating at least three 1-oz servings of whole grains daily and making sure that at least half of your starches consist of whole grains.

Color your plates. (No, not with M&Ms…) Unlike added sugars, sugars that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables and other whole foods have a beneficial impact on blood sugar levels and overall health. To meet your basic vitamin and mineral needs, the ADA recommends eating at least 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables per day. For even more benefits, like a lowered risk for chronic disease, aim for 9+ collective servings.

Balance your plates. One super easy way to eat a great balance of nutrients is the “plate method.” Fill half of your plate with fruits and/or veggies, one-quarter with a lean protein source, like beans, fish or yogurt, and one-quarter with a complex starch, like whole grain bread, pasta or rice. Then add a bit of healthy fat. Healthy fat sources include olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish.

Enjoy treats in moderation. Cutting out all refined foods works for some people. But if you adore brownies, french fries, white bread or other low-nutrient foods, incorporating moderate amounts into your diet can stave off feelings of deprivation. To take your treat foods a nutritious step further, prepare them with whole ingredients. Make whole grain cookies and breads. Top your favorite ice cream with fresh berries. Or swap French fries out for baked sweet potatoes “fries.”

Some of my favorite, super-nutritious carbohydrate sources:
Fresh and frozen fruit
Fresh and frozen vegetables
Brown rice
Wild rice
Sweet potatoes, yams and squash
Beans and lentils
100% whole grain breads and tortillas (such as Ezekial brand)
Air-popped popcorn, seasoned with natural herbs
Oatmeal cookies with raisins or dark chocolate chips
100% whole grain cereals (such as Kashi)
Whole grain pasta (whole wheat, brown rice or spelt)
Old-fashioned or steel-cut oatmeal
Whole grain veggie pizza
Fruit-topped whole grain pancakes
Greek or organic/all-natural yogurt
Dark chocolate

So spill it! Are carbs your friends or enemies? What are you favorite sources? Any goals I can support you toward? I can’t wait to hear from you. :)

Beautiful Breakups: What the Revision Process Can Teach Us

The other day two things happened that seemed so connected, I had to share them. Within the same hour, I learned that a close friend is going through a significant breakup and received an ultra-thoughtful card from another friend I adore. Not seeing the link? Hang with me.

When I called the first friend, I was amazed at the calm confidence in her voice. She barely had to utter three sentences for me to know that she was definitely breaking UP, not down. I read the card’s message straight to her: “Bold is beautiful…and so are you.” Now do you see???

When managed properly, I believe that breakups can serve as catalysts for the most empowering, fulfilling, growth-filled and joyous experiences of our lives. Think about it. We don’t say we’re breaking down with someone. Sure, we may experience a breakdown before or during, but the right partings of ways life us up…eventually.

While I haven’t experienced a romantic breakup since I met my husband six years ago, I  have undergone other types. I’ve “broken up” with my acting career, a close girlfriend and, most recently, a sweet elderly woman my agent suggested I ex-nay from my book. None of these breakups were easy, but there was no “dumping” involved. And much like the romantic breakups I’ve endured, I learned and grew from each one.

Yesterday, I finished a major novel revision. With my friend’s bold and beautiful breakup in mind, I’ve been struck by the parallels between revising our personal lives and revising creative work. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from both processes:

What the Revision Process Can Teach Us About Relationships—And Vice Versa

1. Listen to your instincts. If your novel begs to be written in a particular style, genre or tense, do it—regardless of what seems practical marketing wise. If we try to please everyone but ignore our gut feelings, our story is likely to fall flat. Same for relationships. And if after meeting a guy you, say, sleep with mace in your hand? Don’t date him. Not that I’ve done that. Or anything.

2. Consider your motivation. If you feel confused as to who or what to take out, add to or leave in your novel, consider why you wrote it in the first place. Just as motivating factors fuel our characters’ actions, they fuel our composition. Though my draft has changed significantly, the story I wished to tell from day one hasn’t. If you’re unsure whether to stay in a relationship, ask yourself why you joined it in the first place and why you might stay or leave. Love, like, family and happiness are great reasons to work things out. Loneliness, fear and codependency, not so much.

3. If a character or scene doesn’t enhance your story, cut it. Not only does this make sense from a practical standpoint, keeping the train moving in the right direction and preventing reader boredom, it leaves room in the story for characters and scenes that do enhance it. I’ve found the same to be true with relationships. The busier we become, the more difficult it is to nurture plentiful close friendships. Choose wisely and nurture those who mean the most and bring the most to you. For the others, heck. We have Facebook. ;)

4. Become a plantser: plotter + pantser. I am by nature a seat-of-the-pants-er. But the revision process has taught me the value of planning head. With no plan, we run the risk of writing ourselves off the deep end, in way too many directions and into a tangle of confusion. If we don’t allow for wiggle room, however, we may short ourselves of fabulous characters, scenes and plot twists. In regards to relationships, don’t stay in one solely because it was part of your plan or for fear of the unknown that follows. And don’t choose your mate based on your “outline” of criteria. He or she may not look anything like that page your tore out of GQ or Glamour, or have the job, interests or personality you expect.

5. Don’t compromise your non-negotiables. There was an important word in my first chapter I was asked to change. I considered it, pictured it, even tried typing other options. But it hurt. A lot. So my original choice stayed put. From what I’ve seen, most agents, publishers, editors and readers leave the details and final decisions largely up to you. As the talented author and editor Mike Sirota once told me, “You are the goddess of your book.” ;) We are also the gods/goddesses of our lives. Compromising our personal goals, dreams or values for the sake of another seldom provokes happiness.

For more on romance and revising, check out these fantastic links:
Girls with Pens: The Business of Writing with James Scott Bell 
Bartlette’s Integrated Health Journal: The Healing Power of Love
Mike Sirota: Romantic Horror: An Oxymoron?
Ingrid Shaffenburg: When Someone Shows You Who They Are
Natalie Hartford: A Palooza of Romance: Hubby’s Top 5
Psychology Today: Ten Tips to Survive a Breakup 

What have you learned from breakups—romantic or otherwise? Any of the above lessons resonate with you? I always love hearing from you.

The Menstrual Magnifying Glass: Embracing the Cycle of Creativity

The other day something that normally would’ve had me thinking, “Bummer… That’s sad,” had me sobbing an ocean. That same day, my dog looked even cuter, my husband even hotter and the distracted cell-phone-talking driver ahead of me EVEN…MORE… ANNOYING!!! #$*&#$#$&*… than usual. (Whew! That felt good. ;)) Since then, I’ve had vivid dreams, a major epiphany about my novel-in-progress and woke yesterday feeling pretty darn, dare I say, unconquerable. Am I crazy?!? Nope. More like fabulously female.

I’ve long seen PMS as a type of magnifying glass. Rather than create problems or trigger unfounded feelings, it highlights them. Okay, so highlight may be putting it mildly… Regardless, it can serve as a tool—if we let it.

Positive Framing & PMS
A study published by the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing showed that women’s attitudes play a significant role in PMS symptoms and our ability to manage them. If we view PMS as a horrible, embarrassing illness (which it’s not), we’re more likely to experience severe physical and emotional symptoms. Look at the ordeal in a healthier light and you may get a heap load of benefits.

Menstrual Cycle Perks
In addition to the negative symptoms related to menstruation, which I’m guessing need no explanation, we can experience positive sensations, according to the Feminist Women’s Health Center, such as:

  • A greater connection to nature
  • Creative energy
  • Increased sex drive and orgasms
  • More intense orgasms
  • A sense of relieve, release, euphoria and invigoration
  • Increased empathy and connectedness with others

The Creativity Cycle
Dr. Christine Northrup, a ob-gyn and renowned author of The Wisdom of Menopause and other best-selling books, says that the first half of our menstrual cycle is a “very good time to initiate new projects.” And when ovulation strikes, we are at our creative peak.

Hormonal changes during the weeks after ovulation, says Northrup, make for a useful evaluative and reflective time in our lives. By looking back on what we’ve accomplished, created or faced, and pondering criticism, frustrations and obstacles, we can see what needs adjusting and begin addressing them.

Once PMS rears it’s complex but natural head, we may experience boosted testosterone levels and feel empowered or moved to do things we’ve not done before. This can be awesome or awful, depending on how we utilize it. We may have the strength and gusto to break up with Mr. Wrong, the determination to set aside others’ demands so to finish a creative work or the courage to stand up for something we feel strongly is right. Or…we may scream and cry at a loved one instead of speaking gently, toss our work-in-progress (with great potential) in the trash out of despair or react to criticism from a trusted professional or friend with our latest kick-boxing move. The moral of this story? Listen to your urges, but think before you act.

To turn menstrual “madness” into marvelousness, consider the following:

1. Cry. Studies have shown that tears known as “emotional tears” contain hormones. Releasing them is one way to improve hormonal balance in the body.

2. Get ample z’s. Our bodies work hard in preparation of and during menstruation. Allowing yourself extra sleep time can also help alleviate stress and stock up on those vivid dreams. ;)

3. Eat well. Eating balanced meals and snacks containing primarily whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, guards against nutrient deficiencies and promotes positive blood sugar levels, energy and moods. For more information, read my LIVESTRONG.com article: PMS SOS! Can Diet Help?

4. Respect your cravings. Our bodies need more calories during PMS. Eating too little, skimping on nutritious food and avoiding foods we crave can make many menstrual symptoms worse. Crave chocolate? Have some. Chocolate contains natural plant chemicals that can help balance those hormones. ;)

5. Exercise. Physical activity helps minimize stress, boosts feel-good hormones, reduces bloating and promotes creativity. For best results, MayoClinic.com recommends aiming for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity, such as biking, swimming, aerobics or hiking, most days of the week.

6. Express yourself. I can’t tell you how many deeply emotional songs, stories and chapters I’ve written, much thanks to premenstrual mood swings. Creative expression is a great way to manage and maximize the benefits of PMS and menstruation.

7. Remind yourself of the perks. When we realize that menstrual symptoms are not only natural but beneficial to our creativity and other life factors, we become better able to access the benefits and feel less brought down by the challenges.

For some awesome inspiration, check out these links:
75 Ways Women Are Sexy, by Marcia Richards
Do You Believe in Second Chances? by Marcy Kennedy
Love Your Failures, by Ingrid Schaffenburg
Where Do We Live—For the Story, by Debra Kristi
When Life Gives You Lemons, by Karen McFarland

I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts. What has your menstrual magnifying glass taught you? If you don’t menstruate, how do you deal with support loved ones who do? Any challenges, successes or hilarity to share? I’m all eyes/ears!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,197 other followers