20 October 2015

After the Ashes Book Launch

The official book release of After the Ashes was October 15, and I held a book launch at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston on Saturday. If you've never visited Blue Willow, you should. It is an amazing bookstore, and they host hundreds of events each year.

After the Ashes on display. Note the perfectly-
placed tropical plants.
photo from Sara K Joiner
When I walked in, I saw a gorgeous display of multiple copies of After the Ashes complete with tropical-looking plants.  So perfect!  There was also a customer there who was picking up her pre-ordered copy of the book in preparation for the book launch at 2 p.m. Here's the important part of that: I did not know this person!

The event took place in the rear of the store. My mother made a chocolate cake, which we christened Dutch chocolate in honor of the book. I also had Dutch cookies available, and I decorated the signing table with giant plastic stag beetles similar to those the main character might have collected.

Prizes, including Lava soap, Dutch mints in a tin, and a copy of Krakatoa by Simon Winchester, were given out to people who asked the first questions.

Cathy Berner, a former librarian herself, introduced me, and we were off! I talked about how long it took me to write the book, and how often I revised it. I pointed out early readers who were in the audience and had given me helpful tips.
Me and a member of my critique group. She 
brought me roses!
photo from my critique partner

Me signing books for a friend. She'll 
be doing a giveaway on her blog.
photo from my critique partner
I read a brief passage to whet people's appetites, and then I answered questions. Once the questions were over, I signed books and took pictures like a real author! It was a bit surreal, to be honest. People I've known for years were buying something I wrote and getting me to sign it.

There were about twenty-five or thirty people there, including some I did not know. More than the person I mentioned earlier. That was a thrill! Blue Willow sold out all their copies of After the Ashes. My mother didn't even get to buy one!

My roommate, me and my friend—
all Texas Lutheran alumnae!
photo from my friend
It was also a little mini-reunion of sorts for some Texas Lutheran alumnae. My roommate, one of my friends and a former co-worker all came down from Austin and Seguin to attend. Thanks so much, y'all!

Even these two books were gone before 
the end of the event.
photo from my critique partner
I cannot thank Blue Willow enough for all they did to make the day special, and I cannot thank all my friends who came and supported me. Honestly, it was better than I could have imagined, and I'm still smiling!

31 August 2015

Twin Peaks and the Power of Character

Last month, I was in Washington at the Twin Peaks Festival, a celebration of all things Twin Peaks and David Lynch. For those of you who may not remember or know Twin Peaks, it was a television series created by Lynch and Mark Frost that aired on ABC for two seasons in the early 1990s. The show began with the central plot revolving around the murder of the homecoming queen.

The fictional town of Twin Peaks was a place 'both wonderful and strange.' It was a town 'full of secrets,' and viewers' guide to navigating those secrets was FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper played by the perfectly cast Kyle MacLachlan.

While viewers learned more about Laura Palmer, the murder victim, and the other residents of the town, we were also treated to extraordinary side stories, beautiful scenery and terrific dialogue.

Ultimately, many of the stories in Twin Peaks deal with serious issues such as abuse, extortion, arson, murder and violence.

Why have people gathered in celebration of this?

The Twin Peaks Festival has been an annual occurrence since 1993. Fans travel from all across the globe to meet in North Bend and see the filming locations, meet cast members who come to the Fest, and visit with other fans who become family.

Gary Hershberger, who played
Mike on Twin Peaks, and Sara
at Twin Peaks Fest 2015.
This was my first year attending Twin Peaks Fest, and it was gratifying being around others who were just as obsessed with the show as I was. While I've been a Twin Peaks fan from the first night it aired on ABC (with limited commercial interruptions), what did surprise me was the number of fans at the Fest who discovered the show on DVD or Netflix, long after it went off the air.

Except for the vehicles and the telephones, there is a timeless quality to Twin Peaks. The high school students wear leather jackets or plaid skirts and sweaters. Not a lot of dated slang words are used, and there are no chain stores seen on screen. Twin Peaks exists in a bubble.

One of the other fans I spoke with at the Fest said she thought it was amazing that people were such fans of what was, essentially, a dark show. As I said, the subject matter is disturbing. The scene where viewers become privy to what, precisely, happened to Laura Palmer when she was murdered is still one of the most terrifying scenes I've ever seen on television, network or cable.

Twin Peaks tells a dark story in a unique way, though. The character of Agent Cooper is a brilliant creation. He is a man who is focused and dedicated to his job, a brilliant detective who concedes he has weaknesses, and someone who is able to combine amazement at the world around him without losing sight of the important job ahead of him.

It's important to have characters to root for and empathize with and love. But it's also important to make characters complex. Those characters make Twin Peaks appealing to many. I know they're the reason I keep coming back to the show after 25 years. Everyone, even minor characters, has depth and layers. I've already mentioned Agent Cooper, but there's also

  • Laura Palmer, the homecoming queen whose murder kicks off the show - she isn't what she seems, but even her secrets hide a darker secret
    Ian Buchanan, who played
    Richard Tremayne on Twin
    Peaks, and Sara at Twin
    Peaks Fest 2015.
  • Deputy Andy Brennan, local law enforcement - in his first scene, he weeps while photographing the dead body, but he has a strong moral center despite certain intellectual difficulties
  • The Log Lady - although a bit odd, her own story is heartbreaking

This is just a small sample of the wonderful, weird and wacky characters in Twin Peaks. They keep entertaining me year after year. I can only hope my own characters prove just as entertaining and touching to readers.

Twin Peaks is returning to television. I, for one, can't wait to see my old friends again and look forward to making new acquaintances.

12 August 2015

Updates about After the Ashes

Holiday House is hosting a giveaway on GoodReads for five advanced reader copies of After the Ashes.

You have until August 19 to enter. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky winners!

In addition to the drawing, my book release party is scheduled. It will be held at 2 p.m. October 17 at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

Blue Willow is a fantastic independent bookstore that offers events throughout the year. I've been to some book release parties for other author friends there, and they're always nice. I can't wait for the release! I'm nervous and excited, and that will definitely increase as October draws near.

Finally, I've got reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

27 May 2015

Working with Holiday House

Holiday House is publishing After the Ashes, and I could not have asked for a better experience as a first-time author.

Even before I signed the contract, I got a lovely email from my editor, Kelly Loughman, about what was then called Unnatural Selection.
Welcome to the Holiday House family! I’m so delighted to be working with you on Unnatural Selection. I’ll be in touch in far greater depth once the contract is all squared away (more on that in a moment), but I want to tell you right this minute how much I enjoyed the manuscript, and on so many levels. It’s riveting and heartbreaking and lovely…often all at once!
Once the contract was signed, the big day arrived. I got the editorial letter. I have heard and seen scary stories about editorial letters (one author I know got one that was 24 pages long!). Naturally, I was a little nervous to open the attachment.

To my relief, Kelly's letter to me was only two pages. Whew!

The biggest changes (aside from changing the title) were including an author's note to distinguish fact from fiction and offer a bit more explanation for readers as well as adding more detail in the final chapters about where the main character's life might eventually lead.

Simple! That was before I opened the manuscript and saw page after page of tracked changes marked in red. One of my critique groups jokes that I love my red pen, but if they were to see those tracked changes, they might pass out -- especially when reminded that this is after at least five or six revisions of my own and maybe six or seven more with my agent.

To my everlasting relief, I agreed with most of the changes. Over the course of the next five months, we revised the manuscript three times.

Then came the copy-edits, which I reviewed twice. My favorite copy-edit note was concerning the use of the word hissed.
Change “hissed” to another verb of utterance per house style as dialogue does not include an s-sounding word?
I used hissed twice to describe the way a character spoke. In the end, I kept one and changed the other.

The galley pages arrived on my doorstep one night, and I didn't even know they were coming. My hands shook as I reviewed those pages for any final, minor changes.

Throughout copy-edits and galley revisions, Kelly actually sent me thumbnail sketches of the cover. I was not expecting that. I know authors have very little say in the covers of their books, and I anticipated seeing the cover along with the rest of the world. I was thrilled with the sketches. The artists are two sisters from Italy. Italy! Can you believe that? They go by the name Anna+Elena=Balbusso. Two Italian women creating the cover for a book written by a Texan and set on Java in 1883? The world really is a small place.

Their work on their site is stunning, and I love, love, love the cover they created for After the Ashes.

I think we've finished the final little edits and corrections -- buffing, I call it. Now, I'm looking forward to galleys and then the bound and printed book that I can put on my bookshelf.

18 May 2015

My TLA Author Experience

In April I attended the Texas Library Association's annual conference as I have for the past sixteen years.

As the conference was in Austin this year, I went up early to visit a friend. I planned to leave directly from work, so my bags were packed and in the car.

Before I left work, I got a phone call from Terry, the marketing director at Holiday House. Would I be available to attend a dinner Wednesday night? I told her I would, and she said she would send me the guest list.

At a pit stop on the way to Austin, I checked my email and saw the guest list. I recognized a few of the librarians listed, but what surprised me even more was being listed as an author along with Roxie Munro and Michelle Lord.

Wait. I was coming to this dinner as an author?

Shaken and more than a little terrified at this prospect, I continued on my way. That's when it hit me.

I didn't have anything to wear to this dinner!

I'm a light packer and generally take only what I need. I had pop culture T-shirts for my weekend with my friend and library system polo shirts for TLA. I had sturdy walking shoes. Somehow, I didn't think it would be appropriate to show up at a dinner with Holiday House wearing a Big Lebowski shirt or a Brazoria County Library System polo.

Only one solution - shopping!

My friend and I popped over to Target where I bought a dressier shirt and Frozen flip-flops. I am a children's writer and a children's librarian, after all!

Once the conference exhibits opened, I stopped by the Holiday House booth and got another shock - a flier advertising After the Ashes. I picked it up and snagged the first librarian who walked by and said, "This is me!" Then I took a photo with a different librarian (I think she was from Lubbock).

I took that flier and showed it to everyone I knew.

Then came the dinner. Terry asked me to read a small excerpt from After the Ashes. Thankfully, I had the manuscript in my email. I chose a selection that would hopefully leave those in attendance wanting more.

Unfortunately, Michelle Lord was taken ill and could not attend the dinner, but Roxie Munro is amazing. She talked about how she developed her new book Market Maze.

Then it was my turn. It was at this point that I thanked my lucky stars I'm a children's librarian. Reading in front of a crowd is not a problem. I was also grateful for all the one-act play and prose training I got in high school for UIL.

I took a breath and read from my iPad.

Those in attendance seemed to enjoy it. They 'oohed' at the forbidding nature of the end of my selection.

The rest of the evening was spent in discussion about books, libraries and education. All in all, a terrific way to introduce myself as an author.

16 March 2015

Neighborhood Beauty

Yesterday I took a walk through the neighborhood and made the conscious decision to look for beauty. I think we too often take our everyday surroundings for granted and forget to recognize what is around us.

Most people probably don't think they live in particularly lovely locations. I've never really thought my little spot of the world was exceptional. I live about 15 feet above sea level and about 20 miles from the Gulf. That would be great if I were a fan of the beach, but I'm not. There's nothing wrong with it; it's just not my scenic preference. But since I don't live in my ideal location—and admittedly, I'm not sure it exists except in my imagination and maybe a national park—I set out on my quest today. I needed to find some beauty.

And I did.

One house down from mine is this lovely tree surrounded by decorative cabbages.

The bark on this tree is fascinating.

All the pollen in this tree making it look like streamers.

These trees against that gorgeous blue sky. We've had almost two and a half solid months of gray, cloudy skies. Anyone can see the beauty in a blue sky after that!

The rain still standing in the roads because that means it has rained. After several years of drought, the rain is welcome. Even the mosquitoes that will come later!

This fabulous mailbox which is a replica of the house at the address.

These gorgeous azaleas which apparently didn't care about not getting much sunshine and decided to bloom anyway.

This house, which is my favorite in the neighborhood. I wish I could see what it was like inside.

This field, which proves there is still some greenscape in the neighborhood.

This beautifully-shaped crape myrtle which holds the promise of stunning loveliness.

These little clover blooms. I know clover is a weed, but I love it. I suppose it's the Irish in me.

This lantana, also ignoring the lack of sunshine over the past weeks.

This redbud tree. Doesn't it look glorious against that sky?

The shape and color of the green tree branch against the blue sky.

These purple beauties in the sunshine.

The nests in the tree.

Whatever this is—I'm actually terrible with plants and never know what I'm looking at except when I've been forced to learn.

This gorgeous live oak. You can't really see it in this photo, but ferns are growing on some of the branches! This tree is amazing.

This flowering pear tree. Mom and I looked these up because they are blooming all over the area this year. Maybe they do every year, and we've never noticed. Or maybe the weather was particularly conducive to a fabulous flowering frenzy this year.

This terrific cedar that has ball moss growing on it.

This wonderful flowering tree.

The shades of green on these trees. It's just spectacular.

These fantastic decorations.

And the fiery red on the hedges.

I found all this beauty in a hour-long walk through the neighborhood. Eventually, I'll look farther out into the rest of town. Until then, look for the beauty in your surroundings.