Mountain Man Willy’s Untimely Advice

Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve found little as post-hectic-week-medicinal as hiking in the mountains. The mighty peaks surrounding the 12 million-plus people can make the endless traffic, big-city sounds and life’s stress seem insignificant. While I enjoy gazing at them from afar, there’s nothing like venturing up into them. And that’s exactly what I was hoping for a couple of weeks ago—a hefty dose of respite, peace and escape.

Unlike my husband, I’m no climber. So when he suggested we venture up Mount Baldy, the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, I made sure to ask the necessary question: “Can I handle it?”

“Sure,” he said. “It’s more like a long walk than a climb. But it’ll probably be cold and snowy.” I could handle cold, I reminded him; I spent the first 18 years of my life in Minne-snow-da. So we loaded two packs up with winter gear and headed out. Cool, I thought. A pack! I’m going to look like a real climber! Little did I know what that “look” entailed.

Within minutes of donning the pack, I questioned the identity of the 12-year-old child clinging to me piggyback-style, resisting my every move. My heart thudded wildly and my upper-body begged to go back in time and master pull-ups. I can do this, I told myself. Focus. Maybe I’d adjust in time. But every step felt more brutal. Rather than escape stressors, I had new ones. I fought the urge to chuck my pack down the mountain as my inner-pep talk grew silent.

“How are you doing?” Hubby asked as we neared a small clearing.

“Okay,” I said, as in still breathing. In gasps.This pack is heavier than I thought it would be. Makes things…” *gasp* “rather…” *gasp* “…difficult.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Mountain Man Willy told me once that he can take professional athletes out here and they’re fine. But put packs on them and they fall over.” (Did he seriously just say… ) “Your pack is only like 10 pounds, though.”

He turned to look at me, camera phone at the ready. Me? Not so camera ready.

Grrr… “One person’s 10 pounds is another’s 10,000,” I said.

“Is it really that bad?”

“Do the words ‘are we there yet’ mean anything to you?” I dropped the pack on ground in weary surrender.

We locked eyes and burst out laughing. Then he did what any chivalrous mountaineer would do:

Free of the zillion ton—okay, ten pound—cling-on, I felt as light as air. I could’ve run the rest of the way, singing! We took turns with the pack from there on out, laughing repeatedly over my debacle. To my husband’s credit, he had no idea the pack would affect me as it did, and I was honored by his faith in my abilities.

It struck me as we hiked on how easily we can feel paralyzed by the emotional loads we carry—toxic relationships, difficult-to-break habits, jobs we loathe, insecurities we’ve yet to overcome. If we never release these burdens, we’ll never learn what we’re truly capable of. How can we thrive if we’re too busy surviving? This has definitely been the case for me. The only time I felt purposeless and creatively-blocked, I was at my lowest point emotionally. Once I made the difficult decision to face and set free the burdens I carried, the whole world seemed to open up. I don’t know about you, but a wide-open world full of possibilities—intimidating risks and all—seems far better than trudging through murky waters when in our hearts, we know there’s more. We may not learn these lessons as soon as we’d like, but what matters is that we learn them.

What burdens have you carried? Are any holding you back now? 

The Question Game on Steroids

“A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?”
—Albert Einstein

From the moment I spotted The Book of Questions at a bookstore, I knew I’d put it to good use—and I did, at countless slumber parties, road trips and even a few dates. (Hmm, I wonder why those relationships didn’t last long…) Nothing gets the ball rolling, or catapulting off in crazy directions, like a heap of questions.

Well a fun question game, much like the BoQ, is circulating the web lately and the fabulous Fabio Bueno named me a victim participant. (Thanks again, Fabio!) Once selected for “Eleven Questions,” you’re to follow these rules:

  1. Post the rules.
  2. In the same post, answer the questions.
  3. Create eleven new questions to ask eleven new victims participants.
  4. Tag those people and share links to their blogs in your post.
  5. Let them know you’ve tagged them.

Here are Fabio’s questions and my answers:

1. What is your favorite historical period and why? The seventies. I totally would’ve been a change-making, guitar-strumming hippy.

2. List your top five favorite movies. Off the top of my head—Silence of the Lambs, Seven, The Sixth Sense, The Wizard of Oz and Shattered Glass.

3. Your house is on fire. Your loved ones–humans and pets–are already safe outside. They have your driver’s license and a flash drive with all your backups (files and all the media you own). You have time to save one more object. What would you get? My chest of letters wrapped up in a quilt made with material from my husband’s mom and mine, attached to my guitar. ;)

4. Who let the dogs out? You can invite any three people in the world for a dinner–anyone alive. Who are your guests? Oprah and my parents. If Mom and Dad weren’t free, I’d invite the Dalai Lama and Maya Angelou.

5. Congress/the gods/smiling extraterrestrials said you can only have one type of food every meal for the rest of your life (they’ll supplement your diet with vitamin pills). Which food would you choose? Indian.

6. In an episode of “Friends”, they all reveal their freebie list: five celebrities with whom they can hook up without upsetting their partners. Who’s in yours? No one. I’m expensive. (Ha!) Seriously, though, upsetting my partner is only one of numerous reason I’d opt out.

7. (Huge spoiler alert.) Some people think the Hunger Games is bloody. In Harry Potter 6, fifteen characters die. In HP7, the body count is over fifty (see here). JK is rewriting the series, and she let you choose one character from any of the seven books to get a reprieve. Who would it be and why? I haven’t read the books or seen the movies, so…whoever’s meanest.

8. What’s your worst fear? Serious harm—to loved ones or me.

9. You can choose your own nickname, with an assurance that no one would ever mock you. Tell us your choice. BA = Bestselling author. LOL Kidding! Sort of.

10. What’s the best vacation you have ever had? Morrow Bay with my husband. We spent our “honeymoon” time and funds taking care of my post-surgery bull dog. The resort trip felt more like our honeymoon than another couple’s wedding.

11. Congress/the gods/smiling extraterrestrials said you must move to any fantasy or sci-fi setting (books, movies, videogames, rpgs) of your choice—permanently. Where would you go? The happy place in What Dreams May Come.

Now for the BEST part—asking some of my favorite bloggers new questions. Here are the contestants I’ve chosen:

Catherine Johnson
Nisha
Marc Schuster
Marla Martenson
M.G. Edwards
Mike Sirota
Nigel Blackwell
Raaini York
Rich Weatherly
Stacy C. Jensen
Susie Lindau

Your questions:
1. What did you eat for breakfast?
2. If you could re-live any day of your life, as often as you’d like, which would you choose?
3. Of the books you’ve read recently, which is your favorite?
4. You have front row seats and back stage passes for any concert. Who’s on stage?
5. Who’s the last person you hugged?
6. What’s your favorite smell?
7. What’s your best bargain-hunting or money-saving tip?
8. What’s your funniest or strangest high school memory?
9. How do you feel about your birthday?
10. What do you not miss about being younger?
11. What about you tends to surprise others?

I look forward to reading your responses, assuming you’re up for the challenge. ;) Everyone else, I’d love to hear your answer to at least one of these questions. If you’re feeling especially inquisitive, ask us all one, too!

My Mom on 40 Love-Filled Years

My mom is fluent in numerous languages, writes beautiful poetry and can cook or bargain-hunt her way out of any sticky situation. Of her many areas of expertise, however, maintaining a happy marriage may be her strongest. She’s proven it for forty years—officially, as of yesterday.

Rather than share my thoughts on the landmark day, I decided to go straight to the expert herself. My first semiofficial interview with my mom went like this… :)

AM: *dials phone*

Mom: *picks up* I have my happy grin and my happy face on.

AM: *laughs* Excellent. Feel free to answer with as much or as little as you like, or bring up topics I don’t mention.

Mom: *snickers* You know I always do. If I start blurting, say, Mo-ther… and I’ll understand.

AM: So noted. Okay, so how did you meet Dad?

Mom: I was doing a backyard barbecue for my high school German IV class. We were seniors so I was having kind of a goodbye type thing. My brother asked if he could bring a friend and if the friend could bring a date. And so Dad came with Carolyn—with a ‘yn,’ not ‘ine.’ He had these tall Red Wing cowboy boots on, and I thought, Oh, wow!

AM: Was it love at first sight?

Mom: From the reaction of Carolyn? Uh huh. She knew something was going on and she was not happy.

AM: That’s hilarious. Tell me about your first kiss.

Mom: He was helping me do dishes one day in Grandma’s kitchen. Before he left, he stooped down to kiss me and missed. I was too short! I said, “Here, this is better,” and got on my tippiest, tippy toes.

AM: Okay, I don’t need to know the rest. What was your wedding like?

Mom: Simple and sweet, the way we liked it. We told our parents to invite a few close
friends. We invited a few close friends. I made my dress and Dad wore a sports coat. I made the bridesmaid’s and flower girl’s dresses, too.

AM: And why did you choose April Fools Day?

Mom: It just worked with the calendar. That was the main reason. And who can forget April Fools? You can say things like, “Lovesy, guess what! I talked to the doctor, and I’m having twins!”

AM: *laughs* I’m sure that went over well. How does it feel, being married for 40 years?

Mom: It doesn’t seem like forty years… Dad and I kind of grew up together. I was 17 when I met him and he was 20. He gave me my first roses. He’s always done all kinds of little amazing things. When we started dating he had a little English sports car called a Harold, a red convertible. He would pick me up when I got off the bus from high school to drive me two blocks home. I’d look outside of the bus, and there was the little car! I was very excited, but I’m sure I turned lobster red.

AM: What did your brother think of all that?

Mom: Well, others of his friends asked me out, and the dates didn’t go well. One time one of his friends drove me home, put his hands up and said, “Now, for our kiss good night!” And I ran out of the car. Then every time he called, I told him I had to babysit. After that, my brother said, “Never date my boyfriends. Do not date my friends.”

AM: So you married one.

Mom: Yep! With Dad, everything felt natural. I remember telling him that I wasn’t interested in dating a bunch of people. My dream was to meet and marry one person, to have kids with that person and be able to stay home to raise and enjoy them. And that God was the center of my life. I figured he’d either run as fast as he can the other way or think it was okay. But I thought, I’m not going to pussy foot around.

AM: How did he react?

Mom: He loved everything I said and asked me to read Summer Hill. It presented a controversial way to raise your kids. Basically you raise children to be what they want to be. You don’t spank kids, yell at them or put them in a corner. You listen to them, because they are people. I thought, That sounds very nice.

AM: Ah, so we have Dad and you and that book to thank for not putting ceilings above us.

Mom: No ceilings, but roots—so you’d be grounded.

AM: You went on to have five of us. Was that the plan, or how did that happen? I mean, I know how it happened…

Mom: Do you want me to paint you a picture? *snickers*

AM: Um, that’s all right. But thank you. Did you plan to have a big family right away?

Mom: We knew we wanted several, but we didn’t have a number in mind. I wanted each of you kids to have at least two years between, so that they could be babies. I have friends who say they want to get “that little baby part” out of the way. But I love baby parts. They’re my favorite. And we didn’t have to work hard at it, let me tell you!

AM: Okay, awesome! Moving on.

Mom: *laughs* Like my friend’s son says, “Mom, you did it three times and that was it, right? To have three kids?” If she brings up anything about sex he just shuts her up.

AM: Well, I’m glad it came easily for you and hope you did it more than five times. That is all I will say. *clears throat* *sips water* How did you find time for yourself, and manage to stay sane with all these wee ones running around?

Mom: I was privileged to be able to stay home with you guys. I really admire parents who have full-time careers and kids; I think that’s really difficult… We’ve always stressed family time. When Dad was a driver during the busy season, he’d leave early in the morning and not get home until you guys were in bed. So I always made sure that he’d see you at breakfast. He’d come home frozen to the bone and ravenous. That’s when you saw your Viking. Before even changing his clothes, Dad would go up and give each of you a big cuddle and if you wanted, he’d read you a book. I really learned a lot about parenting from Dad. Dad and my aya—my nanny.

When ever I had one of you guys, I’d come home from the hospital and Dad would have the kitchen floor washed, the laundry all caught up, fresh-baked goods ready and flowers on the table. Even now he does it, when I go to see you in California.

Oh, and time-outs in the bathroom always helped.

AM: So that’s what you were doing in there!

Mom: Yep. Time for myself, even in small increments, made all the difference. And Sunday was family day. It didn’t mean you could not go out anywhere, but it was a day that we spent together—to a park, hiking or have a picnic. We always had supper together. If someone was upset or crying, I’d turn the stove off and took whoever it was to go read a book, watch “Mr. Rogers” or rock in the rocking chair. After that, we could have a happy meal.

AM: I’ve always valued that—eating as a family. What did you think when you met me? I don’t recall, for some reason…

Mom: From the day you arrived, you were just a bubble—floating free and full of it. You just had a blast. You found everything very, very enjoyable in life. You had colic, so it was a little testy at first… You found ways to stay busy and keep us entertained. Remember the time you put sock balls in your dress during nap time? We found you tricycling around the neighborhood singing—

AM: Uh, yes, Mom. We don’t need to go there. What are some of your goals or dreams for the next 40 years?

Mom: I think just to encourage each other in our own things and in our things together. I’ve always loved doing things with my hands. When you have kids, you have all these projects you start and never finish. I’ve always liked doing small projects, so that I feel accomplished. That’s kind of how Dad is with gardening. Now that he’s retired, he gets to do more gardening and cooking, spending time with the dogs… Finding joy in the little things is important. That’s one thing I love about babies—the wonder in their eyes as they see things for the first time. As we grow older, we lose that sense of wonder. I think we need to keep it captured. And Dad is a wonder.

AM: Anything else you’d like to add?

Mom: Just that I’m very spoiled.

AM: I think you spoil us. Everyone who knows you’s been spoiled, Mom.

Mom: Well, maybe the definition of spoiled is loved. *laughs*

AM: Sounds like a poem that should happen.

Mom: Maybe it should.

♥ Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad! ♥

Any thoughts or questions to share with my mom? What do you do to ensure happy, lasting relationships? What lessons have your parents taught you? We’d both love to hear from you!

“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!

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.

Deadlines: Lifelines for Writers

If you sit around waiting for inspiration, it may never come.

I met an author—let’s call him “Larry”—at a conference last year whose first novel, part one of a trilogy, was soon to come out. When I asked how the second was coming along, he said he didn’t feel much urgency since his deadline lay a year out. Once his publisher set that deadline, his work slowed down—in fact, it stopped.

Perhaps Larry, like many of us, works well under pressure. He may complete the manuscript in two or three months and do a fine job. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so, however, for several reasons. First, taking too much time off from writing can lead to creative atrophy. Once we restart, it may take a while to warm back up to our usual groove. Second, all of those months off are months that could contribute to sharpened writing skills. And third, if Larry only takes a few months to complete one novel, why not finish the next two in the series sooner? The more quality work we complete, the better.

I’m not sure which contributes more to my adoration of deadlines—my work as a journalist or the on-time-is-late gene I inherited from my dad. In either case, I believe deadlines can serve as a lifeline for most writers. Here’s why:

1) Sitting around waiting for our muse to appear is impractical. Sure, being struck with wicked inspiration is awesome. But complacency can block inspiration, in my opinion. When I worked as an actress, I used slow months to create film projects of my own. When times were slow at a magazine I worked for, I wrote additional articles and submitted my work to other publications. And you know what? The work inspired me. It still does. The more routinely we sit down and write, the more inspiring we’ll find the act of doing so. Deadlines, whether set by us or others, helps keep us focused. We have little choice but to work.

2) The Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, the more time we have to complete a project, the longer it will take us to complete it. If Larry set his own deadline of six months rather than twelve and took it seriously, he’d probably meet it. The same goes for all of us.

3) Honing the practice of deadline-keeping promotes professionalism. I wouldn’t be surprised if the interest some agents expressed in representing me stemmed from the skill set journalism requires. One even said, “Ah, so you’re good with deadlines.” (Are you kidding? We’re like BFFS. ;)) Fortunately, you don’t need to work with editors, agents or publishers to get your deadline skills in order.

Tips for Setting Your Own Deadlines and Making them Work

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” — Les Brown

Choose realistic dates. If our deadlines are too far off, we may make like Larry and feel no sense of urgency. They can then sneak up us, causing crazy stress, weakened self confidence or total surrender. (“I give up!”) If our deadlines are too short, we run the risk of little things getting in the way or overwhelming ourselves, which again may inspire us to give up. Deadlines should trigger anticipation and enthusiasm, not panic.

Allow for some wiggle room. I generally have about a week to finish feature articles. I give myself a deadline of two to three days. This way, I have plenty of time for unexpected delays and to review my work with fresh eyes before submitting it. And my editors know that I work fast, so if a short turn around piece arises, I’m a realistic candidate. If you feel confident that you can complete a project in six weeks, take seven or eight. Or set a rough draft deadline of six weeks and a final deadlines of seven.

Set incremental deadlines. If your goal is finishing a novel in one year, setting weekly or monthly goals of a certain amount of work time, pages, words or “chunk” can be helpful. I personally don’t dig goals of specific words or pages because quality matters more to me than quantity. But you should do what works best for you.

Create accountability. The more often you set and meet deadlines, the more likely you’ll be to take them seriously, simply by thinking or stating them. If you need more accountability, try joining or starting a critique or writers group. (FYI, choose critique groups with caution. Taking feedback from a bunch of writers can help or hinder our work. What you want is accountability, not a bunch of contradicting opinions.) Or use the buddy system with a fellow reader or writer. Each week or month, share or exchange x-number of pages, chapters or whatever quality work you’ve churned out.

Reward yourself, but don’t punish. Once you meet a deadline, reward yourself with a day off, new book or whatever else strikes your fancy. If your deadline draws near and you’re way behind, set a new one—preferably not too far off. The beauty of setting our own deadlines is that we can remain flexible. In many cases, editors, agents and publishers will allow extra time if you explain in advance that a few more days or weeks would allow greater work quality. Quality often trumps meeting specific dates.

So, I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts. What do you like or dislike about deadlines? Any points to add? Experiences to share? Challenges we can help you manage? Share, share away…

Sweaty Impulses & The One That Got Away

I’d never given much thought to the term ‘maxi pad’ *waves good-bye to a few male readers* until a trip to see my family in Minnesota. Between the altitude of the plane ride and the overabundance of estrogen in my largely female family, I should’ve known that a less-welcome guest, Aunt Flo, would join me. No big deal, right? One would think.

“Uh…Mom?” In the bathroom I’d found only shelves of towels, shampoo and bulk-size paper products—seriously, enough to mummify an army. “I thought you said you had girl stuff.”

[girl stuff: A Minnesota-polite term for maxi pads and tampons]

Wait. Those giant paper products were the girl stuff.

[maxi: A thing that is very large of its kind or a skirt reaching to the ankle]  —Dictionary.com

Not only were the pads—if you could call them that—large, but as sticky as dollar store band aids and as soft as styrofoam bricks. In fact “brick” is about the best description I can conjure. But like many Minnesotans, my family comes from sturdy Scandinavian stock. I could take it! And heck. A maxi-brick beats a toilet paper wad any day. *waves good-bye to a few more males* (Thanks for trying!) I could always buy more girl stuff during our errands-run later.

First, I decided to hit the local gym. Heating the body early in the day is often a must in MN. Others must agree, as the place was packed. I soon spotted another crowd attractor. Between the free weights and the ab-er-sizer machine stood a muscular trainer. Let’s call him Sven (Svelte + Norwegian). If I’d been in Hollywood, I would’ve assumed Sven was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s trainer, an actor who plays an athlete on TV or the latest gym infomercial fit model. Add to his physique wavy blond hair, turquoise eyes and a friendly smile and you can imagine the result—chick magnet extraordinaire.

Uff-da, Sven! Where are your pants???

But I wasn’t there to Sven-ogle. I wanted to sweat. (No, not that kind of sweat, you naughty-naughties.) So I hopped on a treadmill and started running to the beat of my workout tune mix.

Several songs in, I felt something. A subtle draft. Just more chill, I figured, and kept running. As the draft intensified, I sensed what was happening. I looked down in horror. *insert JAWS theme* The maxi-brick moved, seemingly in slow motion, out of my shorts and toward the treadmill belt, bounced off, flew through the air and landed—inches from svelte Sven’s feet and amidst a crowd of exercisers.

[impulse: a sudden wish or urge the prompts and unpremeditated act or feeling; an abrupt inclination] — Dictionary.com

If this were a romance tale, Sven would have prompted my sudden urge and wishes and been the one that got away. But I don’t write romance, and this real-life story is far from heartfelt. (Think horror, thriller and Seventeen magazine’s “Say Anything…”)

Without a thought, I leapt from the treadmill, grabbed the styro-brick, carried it back to the machine with total nonchalance and pretended it was one of those towels used to wipe sweat from the equipment. Yes, I “cleaned” the treadmill with styro-max. My cool facade lasted until I reached the brisk outdoor air, which, for once, felt GREAT. I laughed so hard I spilled tears and told no one until several years later.

To this day, I don’t know if Sven or others recognized what actually happened or if the double takes I perceived inspired nothing but inner-giggles and embarrassing thoughts. (“OMG! I actually thought she…!!!”) If anyone called my bluff, I’m sure a rendition of the story circulates somewhere. If you’re out there, bluff-callers…do I want to know?

Your turn! Any embarrassing tales to tell? Have your “impulses” surprised you? Have you fallen prey to a maxi-brick pitfall?

Truthiness: Raising the Bar in the Blogosphere

“And that brings us to tonight’s word: Truthiness. Now I’m sure some of the word-police, the “wordanistas” over at Websters, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word!” Well, anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen…” — Stephen Colbert

The other day I came upon a fiction author’s blog—we’ll call her Snazzy. In Snazzy’s latest post, she recommends a particular breed of dietary supplements capable of “preventing colds, lowering the risk of cancer and heart disease and stimulating weight loss” in one fell swoop. She doesn’t work for the supplement or wellness industries (that I know of) and simply wished to share her good fortune with others. Commendable, right? To a point…

The supplements the well-intended Snazzy praised are responsible for a slew of serious side effects. And numerous large-scale studies showed not an ounce of effectiveness. I know because I’ve read the studies and interviewed the researchers.

As a journalist, I spend a great deal of time reading clinical studies and interviewing experts, from physicians and psychologists to sports physiologists and dietitians. These individuals invest extraordinary amounts of time and energy into gaining knowledge, typically in hopes of bettering the world. My heart aches when I think of their vast knowledge and efforts going down the toilet because an unknowing (or careless) blogger with a larger social microphone decided to speak up inappropriately against it.

Now I realize that blogging varies from journalism and other literary forms in numerous ways. Many blogs feature one person’s “musings,”  entertaining quips or videos, philosophical insight or all-things-hilarious. The voice is usually more colloquial than newspapers and texts. But anything goes, right? Many of us use our blogs to inspire, help or guide others. All good stuff! But I feel it’s important to recognize that as bloggers we are self-published authors, even if we go the traditional publishing route elsewhere. The ability to cover any topic our hearts desire brings crazy amazing perks, along with risks and responsibility.

Was it illegal for Snazzy to detail benefits of the supplements she knows little about? Nope. But it was, in my humble opinion, irresponsible and potentially damaging to readers and the literary world as a whole. If we bombard the web with “truthiness,” without revealing it as such, we lower the bar for writers, readers and researchers alike.

While we can’t very well eliminate truthiness from the blogosphere, bookstores or other media singlehandedly or overnight, we can do our part by boosting the authenticity and accuracy of our own work.

Simple Ways to Boost Blog Accuracy (and the Blogosphere as a Whole):

  • Become a responsible reader. Want to write about stopping bullying? Don’t simply say, “More kids get bullied than ever before, especially boys.” Go to Google Scholar and read the latest studies. Interview a psychologist or sociologist. Or quote books published by field experts.
  • When you state statistics, facts or other findings, provide readers with the source. When possible, insert a hyperlink.
  • Address both sides. If you’re presenting a controversial issue or finding, seek out and share an opposing viewpoint. If you prefer to stick to a particular side, simply reference the opposers. (“While not everyone agrees, I believe ______…”)
  • When you state an opinion, present it as such. “In my opinion….” (Think like the judge on “The Good Wife.” ;)) Remember, stirring up some healthy debate is a great thing.
  • Incorporate supportive research, even while covering topics in your area of expertise. Psychologist Michael J. Breus does a great job of this here: Kava Continues to Be A Mystery.
  • Avoid using sources that lack legitimacy, like Wikipedia, outdated books and studies, tabloids and personal home pages.
  • Do rely on universities, newspapers, hospitals, qualified experts and current studies.
  • When addressing theories, don’t mislabel them as facts.
  • When possible, opt for large scale studies or research reviews, which compile findings from numerous studies. (If you simply polled your friends, make it known. “100 percent of those asked…” only means so much when you asked your mom, dad and hamster.)
  • Take articles, blog posts and books not supported by legitimate sources and research with a boatload of salt.
  • If this sounds all like too much work, stick to fiction, opinions, personal narrative and musings. And duh, call them that. ;)

Putting more time, effort and research into our posts makes for better reading, increases our odds of gaining readers’ trust, supports hardworking researchers and adds smartness to our hardworking brains. Sounds like an all around win-win to me.

So what do you say? Am I off my blogger-rocker?? If you hit up heavy topics or offer advice in your blog, do you seek out optimum sources? Or do you leave that up to the reader? Any suggestions to add? Wanna learn more? I love hearing from you!

Butter Heads and Blog Awards

Did My Mother Put You Up to This?

Shortly before I swapped my acting career for writing, a casting director said something I’ll never forget: “You look so familiar… Ever had your head carved out of butter?”

I knew immediately that he was A) from Minnesota, where head-butter sculpting is celebrated, B) had a bizarre dairy-chiseling fetish or C) knew my mother. (Mom’s been known to set people up for such…adventures.) Before I could speculate further, he  revealed himself as a MN State Fair groupie. So I busted out my best Fargo-like accent and ended up landing the job. (Nothin’ wrong with some extra edge, yah know.)

While I’ve never donned the Princess Kay of the Milky Way crown—an honor given by the MN Dairy Princess Program each year (And yes, winners’ heads are actually carved out of butter and put on display…), I’ve recently gained a bunch of nifty blog awards. And like the C.D.’s question, the warm fuzzy flurry raised surprise and suspicion: Hmm…Did my mother put you up to this?? 

Regardless, tremendous THANKS to Marc Schuster, Kourtney HeintzMarcy KennedyJessica O’Neal and NM for the Versatile Blogger honors, Debra Kristi for the Inspiring Blogger Award and Sharon K Owen for the Leibster. Y’all deserve these accolades and more. Wish I could carve you out of butter! (I mean that in the BEST way possible.)

*DRUM ROLL* I present these awards to…

1. Marla Martenson: Metaphysical Matchmaker
2. Pat O’Dea Rosen: Reading, Writing and Rambling: Comments and observations on books, movies, writing, travel and other things that strike our fancy
3.  Violets and Cardamom
4.  Ellis Shuman Writes: A Virtual Home for my Writing
5.  You’ve Been Hooked: Observations from the Trenches
6.  Ray, of The Journal Pulp
7.  Lance, of My Blog Can Beat Up Your Blog
8.  Tameri Etherton: A Cup of Tea and Sourcery
9.  Little Miss Vix: The Journey of An Aspiring YA Author
10. Jennifer L. Oliver: World Beneath An Evening Star 

1. Reflection of a Buddhist Monk
2. Natalie Hartford: Life Out Loud: Be yourself…Everyone else is taken.
3. Joe Bunting of The Write Practice: Practical Inspiration
4. Write On, Jana! Random insights on health, happiness, housekeeping and the pursuit of margin…
5.  Holly Kammier: Could Have Been Hollywood

1. Moe and Moe’s LA Adventures
2. Unpublished Patti
3. Minerva, of Finding the Right Words
4. Sanjiv Bhattacharya: Something Good is Going to Happen
5. Cadbury Fife: Cadbury’s Detective Agency and other works of unimaginable genius 

WINNERS! Please pass your award on to 15 others and share 7 “random facts” about yourself and the award logo on your blog. For more details, visit: Versatile Blogger Award or Leibster Blog Awards. Have fun!

7 Random Facts About Yours Truly:
1. I’m an ambi-vert—equal parts intro./extro.
2. I’m the average of my parents’ heights: 6′ 4″ and 5’3″.
3. I’m a sagi-corn or capri-carious—depending on which horoscope’s better.
4. I like kids, especially my coolio niece pack, but don’t intend to have any.
5. I do, however, parent an American bull dog named Zoe—a.k.a., my heart.
6. I dream of performing in a bestselling writers band like Rock Bottom Remainders. (If Mr. King happens upon this, I’m available!)
7. My first novel, IN HER SHADOW, is a psychological thriller that began as a memoir.

Gotta ask. Have you ever had your head carved out of butter? Other foods? What odd questions have strangers asked you?

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