Archive for October, 2021


Pixar Therapy

I recently read a book on dealing with stress and burnout, and one of the things they recommended was completing the stress cycle. The physical responses we have to stress are fight, flight, or freeze, but we can’t respond that way to most of the things that stress us out in the modern world (or we’d get in trouble if we did). If you run into a lion while hunting, you’d run back to your village, and then you and the other villagers might fight it. You’d have a cathartic moment when you knew you were safe and your body could move out of the stress response. You don’t really get the same cycle of stress and release when your coworker gets annoying in a meeting, so you stay in a state of stress.

One way to deal with this stress is through exercise, letting your body feel like there’s been a fight or flight so it can relax. Another way is to work through emotions. Have a good laugh or cry. Watching a tearjerker movie can work you through the cycle because if it’s done well, it covers a full emotional journey that comes to a satisfying conclusion. Reading that, I realized that would make Pixar films actually work as therapy. You go on an emotional journey that makes you laugh and cry and come out feeling transformed (and they’re very conscious about doing that).

So, last weekend, I opted for some Pixar therapy on my movie night and watched Onward, the movie that kind of fell between the cracks because it was released a couple of weeks before the pandemic kicked in and movie theaters closed. It was utterly delightful and a perfect example of that laugh/cry emotional journey.

The story is set in a high-fantasy world that’s moved into modern times, like what would happen if a Dungeons & Dragons setting got electricity and technology but forgot about magic. It’s a modern American suburb, but with mushroom tract houses and trolls running the toll booths on the turnpikes. In this world are two teen elf brothers whose father died while the older was very young and before the younger was even born. The younger feels deeply the lack of a father and has very little confidence. The older is a fantasy geek who wishes for the kind of life from the old days before people forgot their magical heritage. On the younger’s 16th birthday, they get a wizard’s staff, a magical stone, and spell that will allow them to spend one day with their father. They get the lower half reconstituted, but then things go wrong, and they’ll need another stone to get the rest of their father so they can actually talk to him. Off they go on an epic quest with their father’s legs, relying on the older brother’s knowledge of fantasy and the younger brother’s latent magical abilities, but the longer it takes them to get what they need to complete the spell, the less time they’ll have with their father.

This movie is laugh-out-loud funny, both using and poking fun at established fantasy tropes, while at its heart it’s a serious and emotional story about loss, family bonds, parenthood, and finding confidence. During the big, climactic sequence, I was alternating between laughing and sobbing. It’s perfectly cast, with Tom Holland (Spider-Man) as the timid younger brother and Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) as the brash older brother. I suspect the animators were inspired by the actors because you can see their facial expressions and mannerisms in the animated elf characters. I’m sure there were little details I missed in all the fantasy worldbuilding, so I’m sure I’ll be watching this one again.

This one might be either rough or cathartic for people who’ve lost a parent, depending on where you are in the grieving process. It might help a kid who’s lost a parent process their feelings, or it could just rub on the emotional raw spot, so be aware of this before watching.

It gave me just the right emotional journey I was looking for, and the balance between deep and silly was so good that I’m going to have to analyze the writing to figure out how to pull that off.



After getting a book released and my house more or less in order (there’s still work to do in the room where the office is, but the office area itself is all clean and organized), I’m finally taking some vacation time. I’m not traveling, but I’m trying to change things up and take some of the pressure off myself. This week’s posts were written and scheduled in advance, so I can keep promoting my work without having to do anything work-related on my days off.

Weirdly, that means making plans. Planning my days off sounds almost contradictory, but when you travel, you make plans. You decide what you’re going to do on each day of your trip, and the same thing applies to a “staycation.” If I don’t make plans, I’ll just end up having a regular work day, but without the work. I’ll sit down at my computer to check e-mail, end up surfing around on the Internet, and lose the day. I won’t feel like I’ve taken a break because I’ll be doing a lot of the same things I usually do.

So, I’m planning some activities. It’s not a rigid schedule and has a lot of time for sitting and reading or watching movies, but it gives me enough structure to ensure that I actually break with my routine. Today is Spa Day, time to use all the products I’ve accumulated, either buying for myself or getting as gifts. Foot scrub, face masks, the back massaging pillow, the works, along with some yoga and plenty of rest. Other plans for my time off include some craft projects, baking, some long walks in the woods, and maybe a visit to the local art gallery. I have a stack of books, some snacks, and plenty of tea. It’s not quite heading to the Oklahoma mountains for serious hiking and fall scenery, but it’s what I can do under the current circumstances.

According to the doctors at the medical school where I used to work, disconnecting from your daily routine can be refreshing for your brain, whether or not you travel. The trick is to make things different enough to get the same effect as traveling to a different place. I’ll probably come back eager and excited to get going on my next project.

writing life

Celebrating the Wins

Yesterday was release day, and I “celebrated” by going grocery shopping and running some other errands.

I guess over the years the excitement of a new release has worn off. In the early days, it was exciting to celebrate every victory. I got the call from the editor offering to buy my first book when I was at work. When I got off the phone, I was shaking and had tears in my eyes. My boss, a motherly older lady, was passing my office and asked me what was wrong. I told her I’d sold my book, and she gave me a big hug. The office later had a party for me to celebrate the release of that book. When I sold a book to Silhouette, my first with a major publisher, I’d changed jobs since I’d submitted the proposal (it took months for them to buy the book), so I got home on a Friday afternoon to find a message from the editor, asking me to call her back. Then there was another message left later in the day, saying she figured I wouldn’t get the message until after business hours and it would be cruel to leave me wondering all weekend, so she told me she wanted to buy my book. I don’t remember what I did to celebrate that sale, but I bought a TV and VCR when I got the advance check. I’d already bought a nice brooch to celebrate submitting that proposal.

I still have the bottle from the sparkling wine I got to celebrate signing with an agent for Enchanted, Inc. (it now serves as a flower vase). I bought the Infamous Red Stilettos to celebrate getting the publisher’s offer for Enchanted, Inc. I bought a new outfit for release day when I went around to all the bookstores in my area to sign the copies they had in stock (which turned out to be a depressing exercise because most of them didn’t have it). There were booksignings, and those were fun.

But after that, sales and releases were less exciting. Getting the next contract felt more like a relief than a triumph, and the release came after a lot of work. With Rebel Mechanics, the release was a frustration because the publisher had basically forgotten about the book and did no publicity, but I didn’t know they weren’t doing anything until it was too late for me to do much.

An independently published release is a bit anticlimactic. It’s the end of a lot of work, so it’s like dragging yourself across the finish line. You can’t go visit it in a bookstore. You just see the sales numbers start to show up, and you’re already thinking about the next thing. Since you were the one who decided to publish the book rather than it being selected by someone else, it feels more like a choice than an achievement. There’s also no advance. You just get paid royalties every month, so it’s like getting a paycheck.

As you learn more about the industry, you become more cautious about celebrating and announcing a sale. Early in your career, you celebrate at “the call,” when you get the call that a publisher wants to make an offer (these days, I’m more likely to get an e-mail), and you want to immediately tell everyone you know about it. Later in your career, you’ve become wary, so you may wait for the contract to celebrate or announce the sale, or possibly even the advance payment. Sometimes these are spread out over months. You have to work out with your agent and the publisher when and how to announce the deal, so you can’t just run around telling everyone you sold your book as soon as you get the offer.

It’s even worse with TV or movie options. There may be the initial offer, then there’s the negotiated deal, then the actual contract and the payment, and then nothing else may happen. I’ve had possible deals fall apart at various of these stages along the way. Even if things are progressing, you may not be allowed to publicly announce what’s going on (since the studios like to be the ones to announce, and they do it on their timetable), which makes it feel less real. I may be at the point where I wouldn’t celebrate a TV or movie deal until I’m actually watching the show or movie. Then I might believe it’s for real.

I don’t think it’s just me being jaded that has changed things, though. For one thing, there’s a difference between making a book sale when you have a full-time job and when writing books is your job. “Announcing” also means something different now. For my first sale, the Internet was barely a thing, so announcing the sale meant calling my friends and announcing it at my local writing group. The Internet had really come along by the time I sold my later books, but even up to the point of selling Enchanted, Inc., it was a lot less public. There was no real social media, so the Internet amounted to a cluster of smaller communities. I announced the sales on the e-mail loops of various writing groups I was in and to newsgroups and forums I participated in, and while some of those were publicly accessible, it wasn’t as though anything announced there was going to get spread very far. Now, I have an audience beyond just my personal friends, and the Internet is a lot more public. If I announce something on Twitter, it can get spread widely pretty quickly, so I have to be a lot more careful. I generally let my agent make any announcements, and then I share what she announces.

But thinking about this has made me realize I need to find the joy again and remember that each book is an accomplishment. Which is why I made a point of making a nice dinner last night, and I had a s’more for dessert (something that goes with the book). I need to get back in the habit of buying something fun to commemorate each book. I have necklaces and brooches that relate to a lot of my earlier books, or I’ve bought shoes. I don’t know why I stopped doing that, and I shouldn’t have. I have writer friends who have book charm bracelets, and they get a charm to go with each book. I don’t wear bracelets, but I need to think of something to do to celebrate even the tiny victories, something to have that I can look at and remember that it represents a book.

My Books

Weird Weather

Secret of the Haunted Hotel comes out tomorrow, and you should also be able to order the paperback. It will eventually be in online stores beyond Amazon, but I don’t know if that listing has propagated yet.

I’ve realized that this is the second book in the series that involves Lexie being stranded by weather, but that really is a thing that happens in the part of the world where the series is set. In this book, it’s also part of that kind of story. There’s no story if the cops can get there right away or if people can leave. They have to be isolated in the creepy country house while knowing that one of them is a murderer.

Just as the ice storm in Interview with a Dead Editor was inspired by multiple situations I’ve experienced, the storm in this book was inspired by a specific event.

A few years ago, there was an outdoor event at a venue not too far from where I’ve set the fictional town in this series. It had been a wet fall, so all the creeks, rivers, and lakes were already high and the ground was saturated. Then a system hit us and seemed to just sit there. The rain wasn’t that heavy, but it was constant. The outdoor event wouldn’t have been all that bad, though, except that a nearby creek had overflowed, and it sent a sheet of water down a hill, so that the entire event site essentially became a flood plain, with water ankle-deep. The water was flowing to another creek down the hill from there, and the road leading to the venue crossed that creek. It was so deep under water at that point that you couldn’t even see where the bridge was. That meant there was only one road leading out of the site. Fortunately, it was the way I would have been heading, anyway, but most of the side roads were closed. I would not have wanted to be driving out there after dark because all of a sudden, the road would be a creek. There were a few spots where the water was coming down a hill and across the road. You could still see the road because it wasn’t that deep, but it was a few inches deep all over the road. At night, you wouldn’t have been able to tell where the road was.

Even though things were bad and getting worse, there was also a tornado warning, so I didn’t want to get on the road. They herded everyone into one of the indoor facilities at that place until the danger passed. Eventually, the rain eased up, but everything was still under water. Eventually, I was able to drive home, and I was totally drenched and covered in mud.

In that part of the state, there are often flash floods where they have to get people out with helicopters, and there are high-water rescue teams for when the roads flood and people get stranded in their vehicles. So, I’m not stretching things to have a couple of severe weather events in the same area within a short time frame. It’s a hilly area with a lot of creeks and a few rivers, so you get flash floods. I did restrain myself and didn’t include the tornado. I think I’ll save that for another book. I also left out the drastic weather change that followed that system. The next day, it was sunny and muggy, though the ground was still soaked and there was standing water. By the time I got home after the event, another front was coming through, and it dropped something like 20 degrees. It was just starting to get chilly when I got home, and then it got downright cold.

Basically, if you like having weather affect your plot, Texas is a good place to set your book.

Metaphorical Cleaning

My house cleaning and office organization project continues. So far, I’ve got the downstairs except for the kitchen cleaned (the kitchen is going to take extra time, not so much because it’s dirty but because there’s more to do, like wiping down the inside and outside of appliances, cleaning the oven, etc.) and I’ve organized the area under my desk.

My desk is deep and doesn’t have built-in drawers. It’s basically an L-shaped table with a keyboard drawer, and that means there’s room under it for storage. I’ve got a stack of plastic drawers on one end. Under the corner is a unit with a big drawer/bin and a shelf, and then I have the printer cart from a previous desk, from back in the day when you would put your tractor feed printer on top and your paper below, and you’d feed the paper up through a slot to the printer. That cart is now where I keep my printing supplies. I sorted through all that stuff, so now I can easily find the printer paper, writing paper, and all the various kinds of stationery I’ve amassed, including notecards and postcards that can be run through a printer. I also organized and sorted through all the notebooks that go on the shelf of the corner unit. The area looks so nice now that I find myself just gazing at it.

Then I made a big change on the top of my desk. My desk is a bit tall for me. I put my laptop on the keyboard drawer and it’s more or less at the right height if I keep my chair high enough, which means I need a footrest. But I was feeling really hemmed in by the desk and was pondering if I needed to get something different. Then it occurred to me that the problem was really that one of my printers, the inkjet that’s also a scanner and copier, was sitting right in front of me on the desk, making the desk look even higher and blocking part of my view out the window. I’d put it there because when I was using my office previously it was before I got Wi-Fi, so I had to be able to plug the printer directly into the computer. Now it doesn’t matter where the printer is, so I moved it to that cart behind my desk.

And it was amazing the difference it made. It cleared a lot of space on my desk and opens that whole area up. I have a clearer view and feel a lot less “trapped.”

I think there’s a metaphor in there. I was feeling trapped by something that had served a purpose at one point in my life. Things had changed so that it no longer needed to be where it was, but I hadn’t realized that or thought about it until I looked at things in a new way. I think we tend to do that in life a lot, let something that doesn’t have to be the way it is anymore keep us feeling trapped because we don’t stop and think about why we’re doing things the way we’re doing them. It’s worthwhile to question things every so often and consider whether a change would work.

Or something profound. I just know that now I can see more of my plants and out the window instead of having a big, black thing right in my face.

Since I have a book releasing next week, my progress on the office is going to have to slow down. But I’m determined to get it done this year, even if I do only a little bit every day.

writing life

The Terrifying Office

I got all the book work done, so now I can take things a little more slowly, though I do have launch-related work to do next week. I’ve spent this week so far doing a gradual deep clean of the house. I’m doing the kind of dusting where I take everything off a surface, then clean all the items and the surfaces and polish the furniture and the kind of vacuuming where I move the furniture and go along all the baseboards with a crevice tool. I’m managing about one room a day before I collapse, but I’m going to love the results when it’s all done.

The real challenge is going to be the office. I let my office, which is the upstairs bedroom, get out of control during the years when I was migrating around the house with my laptop instead of working in the office. It turned into a storage room, the place where I dumped everything when I was doing an emergency house cleaning. I got the area around the desk cleaned up earlier this year, so I can work in the office, but the rest needs work to make it a pleasant place to be. It’s a bit overwhelming. I’m not even sure where to begin because it’s the kind of thing where I need to clear out one space to put another thing away to clear that space, but I guess I just need to pick a spot and get started and let it all come together.

I’m also rethinking the way I have things arranged. I put the bookcase with all my books in a corner because I don’t often need to reach those (I have reference copies near my desk if I need to look something up while writing), and I have a cart with my mailing supplies and file folders on the wall behind my desk. But now there’s Zoom, and I don’t really want a bunch of envelopes and file folders as my background, so I’m thinking about switching so that my brag bookcase is behind me and the office supplies are out of sight.

I have this crazy idea to turn my office into a magical forest, but I don’t think that will work in this space. I’d have some fake trees hung with fairy lights and lots of plants. I don’t have the room for that the way things are now, and I haven’t found the right kind of fake tree. For now, I’d settle for the place merely being neat and organized. Then I’ll worry about decorating.


Walking in the Woods

The book I read from my “to be read” shelf last week was A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. It has a clearance sticker from Half-Price Books on it, so I must have picked it up at a clearance sale at some point because the topic appealed to me, but then I never got around to reading it. This is a non-fiction book about an American writer who’d been living in England for a long time, then moved back to the US. While getting adjusted to being back in his home country, he became fascinated by the idea of the Appalachian Trail and decided he wanted to try hiking the whole thing. He invited a number of people to go with him, and the only person who responded was an old acquaintance he actually found kind of annoying.

Still, they got geared up, flew to Georgia, and began hiking at the beginning of the trail. The book follows their adventures as they spent their days hiking and camped along the trail, covering their hardships and some of the interesting people they met along the way. Interspersed with this story is information about the trail itself, how it came to be, its history, and how it’s maintained. The story parts of the book are often laugh-out-loud funny. These guys were in way over their heads and got into a few scrapes, and there was a lot of sometimes silly conflict between them.

The book appealed to me because I love hiking, and there’s a part of me that would like to do something like that, just set off across the country. However, I’m not sure I could deal with walking all day, then sleeping on the ground, and going days without any kind of shower or real bathroom. There were a few places along the trail where they were able to get to a motel or stay at a lodge, but otherwise it was primitive back country camping, and I’m too much of a delicate flower for that.

I know someone who tried through-hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years ago. She and her pre-teen sons and their dog hiked, and her husband followed along in an RV with their cat (he was able to work remotely). Most of the time, she and the kids would camp on the trail, but when the trail got close enough to meet up with a road, her husband would pick them up in the RV, so they could get a shower and sleep in a bed. When she was able to get a signal, she’d post an update. It was fascinating to read, but I’m not sure I could do it. I don’t remember how far they made it before they decided to stop and come back home, but it wasn’t the whole way even after months of hiking.

Still, reading this book made me really want to go hiking. I love walking and hiking — I’m not sure what the difference is, though I consider hiking to be off paved trails. One reason I live in my neighborhood is its network of walking trails. There’s also a park on the edge of the neighborhood where there are trails through the woods. My happy place is walking through a forest. I don’t do it nearly as much as I’d like to. I started last year with a First Day hike at a state park and had grand ambitions of finding a hiking group, but then the pandemic hit. My last few real vacations were to go hiking. We’re getting to the time of year when you can do long walks and hikes around here, and that’s a lot of what I have planned for my fall break. It was nice getting to do that vicariously while reading this book, and I will appreciate being able to walk for an hour or two, then come home and take a hot shower and sleep in my own bed.

There are some stretches of the Appalachian Trail that are more accessible for day hikes in Virginia, so maybe I’ll keep walking at least a little of the trail on my Bucket List, even if I have no desire to do the whole thing. That was the part in the book that sounded closest to what I think I could do.

Now I kind of want to see the movie based on this book. I can see how much of the story would make a good film, and I’m curious how they deal with the structure. They did a good chunk of the trail before stopping for a break. The author visited some other pieces of the trail on his own, then his friend joined him again to tackle the rest. I’m guessing they cut out the middle part and keep the two guys together. In the movie, the actors are in their 70s while the real people were in their 40s when they did this, so they seem to have turned it into an old guy Bucket List sort of thing. I may wait a little while before watching it because a movie is almost always disappointing soon after you’ve read the book.

My Books

New Mystery for Pre-Order

The next Lucky Lexie Mystery, Secret of the Haunted Hotel, is now available for pre-order at most of the major e-book sellers. It will be released on October 21, so it’ll be just in time for Halloween reading.

All these books have ghosts, so I guess any of them would work for seasonal reading, but this one is about a haunted house and takes place near Halloween, so it’s especially suited for reading when you want things a bit spooky. There’s a storm and the power goes out and there’s a murder in an isolated haunted house. To complicate matters even further, it’s during the haunted house’s grand-opening party for the bed-and-breakfast in the house, and the owners have invited ghost hunters from around the country, along with Lexie, as the local reporter. That means Lexie, who can really see ghosts, will be there along with people who claim they can. That may make it hard for her to keep her secret so people outside the town don’t think she’s a total crackpot.

I’ve been wanting to write a book like this for ages because I’ve always loved those British “house party” mysteries, where there are a bunch of guests at one of those remote country houses, and then someone is murdered. That means one of them is the murderer. I absolutely love that trope and have been wanting to play with it. Adding ghosts makes it even better.

My mom says I should warn people that this book will make people want Mexican food (Margarita caters the party). There’s also hot cocoa and a discussion about what kinds of chocolate make the best s’mores, so you might want to stock up before you read.

I’ve got links to the places where you can pre-order on the book’s page on my site. There will be a paperback, but they don’t let us set up pre-orders for those.

And after this book, I’m done for the year. I’m taking a little time off to refresh myself and recharge, and then I’m going to work on developing an idea I’ve been playing with for a while. You can follow along here and see something about how my process works.


Getting Hooked

Last week, I started reading a book I’d checked out of the library. I was in a bit of a reading slump, as I hadn’t really taken to the last couple of things I’d read, but then very early in this book I got that tingle of “ooh, I’m going to like this.” And that made me stop and think about why — what was it about this book that made me sure I’d like it, that drew me in? It wasn’t the plot, since it hadn’t even really started yet. One of the recent books that I didn’t take to had a plot that should have been catnip to me, but I never really got into it.

Thinking about it, I decided that the thing that makes a book grab me is a character I like who has potential for growth or change. I haven’t done a full analysis of all my favorites yet, but this seems to be a common thread.

For “character I like,” I have to confess that most often that seems to be a character I’m romantically attracted to, the “book boyfriend.” But it can also be a character I relate to. That doesn’t necessarily mean in any demographic sense, stuff like gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, station in life, etc. It’s more about that sense of “I get you.” For instance, I’m not a rogue security android, but the moment I started reading the Murderbot books, I had that “yes, this is a kindred spirit, I get you” sense about Murderbot. And sometimes it’s just a character I like, someone who’s interesting, funny, capable, kind or has some other quality that makes them appealing, even if I don’t relate to them at all and am not at all attracted to them.

This is where a lot of books that I don’t take to go wrong for me. I don’t like the main character. There’s nothing I’m attracted to or relate to, and the person is annoying.

The “potential for growth or change” part was a bit surprising to me because that’s something I struggle with in writing. I have a bad habit of starting out with a character who doesn’t need to learn anything, or I have trouble coming up with the flaw the character needs to overcome. But when I started looking at what hooks me, most often it’s the character who’s in way over their head in a situation they aren’t prepared to deal with. So there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the person. The problem is that they’re in the wrong situation for them, and they’re going to have to rise to the occasion or fail horribly. It’s the “unlikely hero” trope, the “you want me to do what?” story.

The next most common need for change that hooks me is the person with some kind of damage that skews their perspective, and the change you see coming is some kind of healing of that damage. That was the book that most recently hooked me (I’ll discuss it in another post after I’ve read the second book in the series and see how it goes). The main character was someone angry who’d been hurt, and the plot setup was something that I could see leading to some kind of healing. I wanted to see the character be healed, so I was eager to read on.

I’m a bit less interested in the “this is their fatal flaw in how they see the world, and they’re going to have to correct being wrong in order to prevail” story.

When I have a bit more free time, I want to do a good analysis of my bookcases and see how this theory holds up. It does give me a better idea of how I can write character growth — and the need for character growth — in a way that works for me and that I hope will work for readers.

What is it that is most likely to grab you in a book?