I was going to do a year-end wrap-up, but it was boring. Here’s this instead.

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I spent the summer before my senior year of high school in Paris. I was alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, and I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B every day with just a Metro card and a small map of the train system that looked like a tangle of rainbow-colored veins. I learned to feed myself on a few francs a day (lots of baguettes and liters of Pepsi with chocolate bars for dessert–thank God for youthful metabolism), and how to ask people for help in the rudimentary French I’d picked up from my pocket-sized dictionary. It was a challenge and an adventure, and an incredibly formative time in my life. Without the freedom to explore and to either succeed or fail on my own terms, and without the faith of my parents that I was a capable enough seventeen-year-old to survive for a summer without them, I don’t think I’d have the same sense of my own potential that I have as a grown woman. The notion that I could get a master’s in my late-30s and become a high-school teacher (a teacher! I don’t even like to talk in small groups, much less in front of a room full of petulant teens!), or that I had the ability to dive headfirst into something as complex as writing and self-publishing and give it a go in my spare time…where did that sort of self-belief come from? I have to blame it on that summer abroad, but there are a few other things I learned about in Paris, too.

Like the kindness of strangers. One day I climbed off the Metro train at my stop during rush hour, clumsily bumping my way through the crowd just like everyone else. It’s pretty safe to assume that I had those old-school foam headphones on my ears, my yellow Walkman cassette player in hand as I listened to the Thompson Twins (my soundtrack to that summer–even now I can’t listen to King for a Day without thinking of the City of Light), and that I was already worried about where I’d buy that night’s baguette and cheese. Anyway, I knocked into a man in a business suit, and the rolled-up poster under his arm fell to the ground and started rolling…and rolling…right to the edge of the platform…and then off the concrete and onto the train tracks. I was horror-stricken. I apologized–in English, of course, though it’s possible I uttered a few excusez-mois, as I had added excuse me, can I have a ham and cheese sandwich without butter, please? and where is the restroom? to my limited French vocabulary. But my apologies in any language weren’t registering, as he was already screaming at me–in French–about what a dumb idiot careless American girl I was (I’m guessing here, but I don’t think I’m wrong), and I stood there on the platform in my patchwork denim skirt and those backless cowboy boot half-shoes/half-slip-ons that were so popular (and impractical) in 1992, looking stunned and embarrassed.

It’s possible I even considered climbing down onto the tracks in my jean skirt to retrieve the rolled-up poster (at the time I imagined it was an architect’s drawing of an important renovation at a museum, but it could have been anything: a cheesy image of the Eiffel Tower that he was mailing to his girlfriend in Portugal? The “Hang in there!” kitten poster, but, like, in French? A Def Leppard album cover print he’d just picked up at his favorite record store? I’ll never know…), but as I moved in that direction, another man–older, calmer–stepped between me and the angry Frenchman and put his hand on my shoulder. “Go,” he said in English, “just go.” He physically turned me around and gave me a light, encouraging shove. So without a backward glance, I went. My assumption was that he was offering to go down onto the tracks himself to save the poster from certain death-by-train, but I don’t know what happened after I climbed the steps out of the station, all I know is that a stranger had been kind–he’d done something he absolutely did not have to do, and he’d done it for me.

I feel the same way now about my writing: people–strangers, more often than not–read my blurb and buy my book. They leave reviews, follow my blog, subscribe to my newsletter, send messages of support to say they liked it, and then buy the next book. They don’t know me–they don’t have to encourage me or my writing–but this is the kindness of strangers. In a world where we focus our ire at someone on Twitter we’ve never even met, and during a time when we shout at each other in cyberspace and call one another out over political beliefs and misinterpreted comments about everything under the sun, I still believe in the kindness of strangers. It’s out there. I like to see it, and I like to write about it.

And now I’m hungry for a baguette.

 

So I changed my book covers.

I’ve been reading a lot about how important it is to always be aware of the market and to not be overly stubborn and precious about your work. I loved the retro feel of my old covers and I really thought they worked with the series, but they just weren’t selling the way I knew they could. So I went back to the cover artist and asked her to work with me on something that looks more like the other books in my “categories” (women’s fiction/contemporary romance/humorous chick lit) and we came up with the above. My daughter has deemed the first one “too much butt” and I’ll admit I felt a little hesitant about making such a big leap, but it’s been a great choice so far. The book is moving again, and at one point, I hit the top 2,500 on the Amazon Kindle charts, so…I think it was a solid decision.

I also put out the first novella in the series, which offers some backstory about Jake, Christmas Key’s only cop and Holly’s ex-boyfriend. It gives some perspective on how a guy like Jake ended up on a tropical island full of old timers and expats, and hopefully sheds some light on how he and Holly fell for one another. It’s a much shorter read (only 20k words), but I’m working on the third full-length novel in the series, so I thought it was a fun little in-between story.

I’ve also punched up my advertising big-time and gotten some good results. I can’t attribute the jump in the Kindle charts entirely to my new covers (though I think they helped), so after my promo run ends in a week or two, I’ll do an update on the results. It’s cost me a few bucks, but I think the returns are good.

In the meantime, Wild Tropics is in a multi-author Halloween promo through Monday night for just .99, so if you’re interested in checking that out (or finding some other great Halloween reads this weekend), click HERE to grab a book or two on the cheap. And if you do, don’t forget to help out my fellow indie authors by leaving a review! Happy reading!

When ‘Christmas Key’ comes to the Big Screen.

**insert laughing emoji face with tears streaming**

I mean, a girl has to dream, right? Because whether I’m reading or writing a book, the characters and places come to life in my head, and at a certain point it really is like watching a movie, isn’t it? This has been a busy month so far, with school starting up again (our school district decided high school needed to start an hour later, so not only is our schedule bumped back, but I took on an extra class at the end of the day, which means I’m now getting home at 5:00…not exactly teacher’s hours anymore!), and I also managed to get Book 2 in my Christmas Key series, Wild Tropics, published and out into the world. I’m really proud of being in the middle of an actual series now, and I’m currently working on a novella about Jake–one of the main characters–that will give some background information about how he ended up on a tropical island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.

But as I work on my stories, of course I have ideas about who the characters are, and who they look like. So, without further ado, allow me to cast the Hollywood version of Christmas Key:

Holly Baxter, Christmas Key’s 30-year-old mayor: I see her as sort of a blue-eyed Keira Knightly. Pretty, but kind of serious. A little quirky. Embed from Getty Images

Jake Zavaroni, Christmas Key’s only police officer and Holly’s ex-boyfriend: Jake Gyllenhaal. Good-looking. Honest eyes. Looks like he’d be a tough but good-hearted cop. Embed from Getty Images

Bonnie Lane, Holly’s assistant at the B&B: 50-ish, a Southern belle who loves men. A real saucepot–like a Golden Girls era Rue McClanahan, with a thick accent and a Blanche Devereaux sense of humor. Embed from Getty Images

River O’Leary, Holly’s love interest who visits the island from Oregon: 30-ish, tall, good sense of humor, ex-pro baseball player for the Mets. Paul Walker–no question. Embed from Getty Images

Maria Agnelli, the island’s resident cantankerous octogenarian: 86, a widow with a sharp tongue and a kooky streak. This is where my love of the Golden Girls becomes obvious (okay: we can call it an obsession)–Maria Agnelli is 100% Sophia Petrillo. Embed from Getty Images

Cap Duncan, owner of North Star Cigars: looks like a pirate who walks around with a parrot on his shoulder. A little grumpy with a lot of secrets. I picture him as Donald Sutherland with slightly longer hair and a gold hoop earring. Embed from Getty Images

Leo Buckhunter and Dr. Fiona Potts, Holly’s uncle and his girlfriend, Fiona, who is both the island’s only doctor and Holly’s best friend: Buckhunter is a grizzled, tattooed Matthew McConaughey in my mind, and that never wavers. Fiona is a petite, smart, funny woman in her 40s, and although I think of her with more strawberry blonde hair, she’s definitely a Reese Witherspoon. Embed from Getty Images

Coco Baxter, Holly’s mother: late 40s. Self-involved, self-centered, self-serving. She and Holly aren’t close, and while she doesn’t technically live on the island, she visits all the time and her negative presence is always felt. I see her as a crisp (though not British) Kristin Scott Thomas. Remote and with an attitude, but beautiful. Embed from Getty Images

I’ll be sure to let you know when the movie premiere is so you can be there! **insert another laughing/crying emoji again here**

Happy fall!

RRBC Book and Blog Party 2016!

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Welcome to this stop on the blog tour! This is our first time participating, and we’re really excited to join you from Vancouver, Washington. We’ll have two winners today here at Redbirds & Rabbits, and all you need to do to enter is comment on this blog post. Our two prizes today (both randomly drawn by the RRBC team) are:

  • One $25 gift card to Old Navy (perfect for back-to-school shopping!)
  • One paperback copy of There’s Always a Catch, the first book in my Christmas Key women’s fiction series. Along with the book, I’ll send you some “book swag” like a magnet and my own homemade soundtrack of songs inspired by There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, which is book #2 of the series!

It’s exciting to have you join us from wherever you are on this beautiful planet, and we’d love to tell you a little bit more about ourselves. My name is Stephanie, and I’m the mom. Holland is my 12-year-old daughter, and we’re the co-authors of a series that Holland dreamed up two summers ago. From her original idea, we decided to write books about what it might feel like for young girls to move to America. Each book is about a girl from a different country, and the main character’s story follows her as she moves to our country and gets assimilated. We published our first book, Iris, about a year ago, and we’re incredibly excited to announce that we just put out our second book, Mai, a few days ago.

Iris-FINAL.jpg          Mai-f

In addition to the books I write with my daughter, I also pen a women’s series based on a fictional island off the coast of Florida called “Christmas Key.” The main character, Holly Baxter, is the 30-year-old mayor of a tropical island where the only traffic comes from slow-moving golf carts driven by retirees; the commute to work involves getting sand between your toes; and happy hour means salty margaritas with a view of the ocean. The only drawback for Holly is the lack of romantic options on Christmas Key! Book one, There’s Always a Catch, came out in the spring, and book two of the series, Wild Tropics, will be out in September.

TAAC-CK-BK-ONE-f          WildTropics-TAAC-f

And finally (as if two series and being a full-time teacher wasn’t enough!) I write YA under the pen name Reed Hall. My first YA book, @Robertopancake, came out last year, and it was a book that I absolutely loved writing. The whole thing was inspired by an exchange about music that I had with a kid on Twitter back when the site first became popular, and it moved me to write this book from the perspective of a teenage boy. The real @Robertopancake kindly gave me permission to take his (often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking) teenage boy tweets out of context and use them in my own fictional tale. The result is a book that I’m still incredibly proud of, and the main character is someone I love as if he’s a real, live boy (and many of my readers have said they wished he was real!).

Robertopancake - High Resolution

Thank you for stopping by today–we’ve loved being a part of the Rave Reviews Book Club the past few months, and this blog tour has been a great example of what a wonderful, supportive community it is. Happy reading and writing, everyone!

~Stephanie & Holland

And now we can officially call it a series.


Mai-f

It feels like it’s taken an eternity, but we finally hit ‘publish’ today on the second book of our middle grade series. I’ve gone into writing both the American Dream Series and the Christmas Key Series with the understanding that they would be multi-book ventures, and I’m constantly working on one or the other. But at a certain point, time starts to drag on and it feels like those who know me best are wondering whether I’ve just given up on publishing more. I have not.

The journey from idea to actual finished product is a long one, and the edits alone are enough to make a sane person crazy (how many times can you actually re-read the same scenes before you start dreaming about your characters like they’re real people? How many times can you tweak and re-tweak your dialogue and description? Doing it several times more probably wouldn’t hurt the final version, but it does start to hurt your brain!), however, the excitement of getting something completed and sending it out into the world never gets old.

And so we now present to you the story of Mai Nakahara, a Japanese girl who moves from Tokyo to Honolulu with her family. By the time Mai’s family moves to America to help run her aunt and uncle’s restaurant in Hawaii, she’s pretty much gotten used to living without the arm she lost to cancer. But life in Honolulu presents its own challenges: a giant ocean she’s too afraid to swim in, mean girls to ignore, and horrible sports to play in gym class. Fortunately, there are also some good things about Mai’s new home, and with the help of her cousin, her new friends, and a famous one-armed surfer named Chloe Hayes, Mai discovers that the only real obstacle to her own happiness is believing in herself.

You can check out Mai: The American Dream Series Book Two on Amazon.

My Christmas Key soundtrack.

There’s almost nothing I do without music, except maybe sleep. I put Pandora on as soon as I start getting ready for work in the morning, I listen to music as I drive (preferably Sirius XM’s First Wave station), and I play it all day long in my classroom during the school year while my students are working. There’s more music while I work out at the gym in the evenings, and of course I listen to it non-stop as I write. A mellow Pandora station that fits the mood of my story and doesn’t distract usually works well, so for my Christmas Key books, a combination of Tropical Holidays and Caribbean Jazz are pretty much my go-to stations.

For me, music sets the mood and the tone of not just writing, but life. Certain songs can instantly transport you to a time and place (anything that came out in 1997–Chumbawumba’s Tubthumping, the New Radicals You Get What You GiveSarah Mclachlan’s Building a Mystery–are like a time machine to the fall of that year, a trip back to me driving around Miami as a 22-year-old newlywed in a beat-up car with no air-conditioning, trying to make it as a model on South Beach). Road trips are intimately tied to the music I listen to as I take in the small towns, the wide vistas, and the mottled skies, and I also find that songs are interwoven with the humans who recommended them to me, as one of my favorite students did this year when he made excellent suggestions for a handful of cool songs I’d never heard before. From this point on, those songs will always be the ones that Grayson gave me.

Music is such a big part of my life that it’s no surprise to me when I go back to revise and edit to find that I’ve name-checked several songs in every book. After finishing There’s Always a Catch and the forthcoming Wild Tropics, I had to go and buy the songs I didn’t already have in my iTunes library, and now I have a handy Christmas Key playlist to listen to whenever I need to get my head back into the game with drafting or revising. So without further ado, here are the songs mentioned in the first two books in the Christmas Key series. (I’m giving away two copies of my soundtrack on CD, so if you live in the U.S., leave a comment on this post and tell me which island on this beautiful planet is your favorite, and why–I’ll choose 2 winners on July 31st!)

  1. Let’s Stay Together–Al Green
  2. God Only Knows–The Beach Boys
  3. Trouble–Coldplay
  4. Hotel California (Live)–Eagles
  5. Brilliant Disguise–Bruce Springsteen
  6. Just Like Heaven–The Cure
  7. Jamming–Bob Marley
  8. Witchcraft–Frank Sinatra
  9. Thriller–Michael Jackson
  10. Somebody Else–The 1975
  11. Jingle Bell Rock–Bobby Helms
  12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!–Ella Fitzgerald
  13. Santa Baby–Eartha Kitt

 

How I draft my novels.

Unlike Donald Trump’s nature-defying comb-over, writing becomes less and less mysterious as time goes on. At first there’s a mystique about the whole process of Writing A Book, but then you manage to bleed sixty or eighty-thousand words onto a page (or into a word doc), and you realize that, Hey, I can do this. It’s just words!

Only it’s not. It’s plot and character and setting and detail and…so much more. And it always feels as if, when you’re done, you’re missing one of the main ingredients. For me, writing has been a series of light bulb moments: aha! I think I understand how to make characters come alive with their actions and their words. I’ve got it: I know that I need to hit major plot points by moving my characters from point A to point B! But putting everything together into one story? That’s hard. And I haven’t mastered it yet.

The other part of my writing (aside from discovering each time I write something that there was some huge piece of the puzzle that I was previously missing) is the fun I have with my first drafts. I’m a pantser through and through, which means I write whatever comes out with no plan, and Draft One is always the part where I have the most fun. I usually start with a very basic idea (example: Christmas Key, an island off the coast of Florida where the locals tool around on golf carts and where the lights and tinsel stay up year-round.) Then I add a couple of characters whose eyes we get to see the setting through (Holly Baxter, 30-year-old mayor of the island. She inherited the island when her grandparents passed away, and she’s struggling to gain the approval of her mostly-retired neighbors as she plans for controlled progress.) I throw in some sort of key element, like romance (Holly has recently broken up with hunky Jake Zavaroni, the island’s only cop, and they’re trying to figure out how to live together on a tiny island without actually living together), and then I figure out how to make it interesting (a group of fishermen from Oregon books a trip to Christmas Key, and among them is former baseball player River O’Leary. He and Holly hit it off immediately. But will their island romance turn into something more? And how will Jake handle seeing his ex move on right under his nose?) It’s just basic stuff, really, but it’s like laying the foundation for a house.

Then, to frame out this metaphorical house, I have to figure out how many rooms (books) I want–in this case, I’m thinking at least five in this series. I have ideas for the romance element as well as the growth of the island, the obstacles to both, and how to intertwine other islanders’ stories as well. Now, as a pantser, I have no idea how or when that will all play out, but I can picture some of it in my head (hints: reality show; murder-mystery weekend; a challenger for the office of mayor) so I know it’s possible to wring several books out of these ideas. And then I just write it. All of it. Whatever comes out. I build the rooms during this first draft, and throw in a few windows and doors. It’s hard not to go back and edit yourself as you go, but I resist it as much as possible.

After the first draft is complete (and I know it’s complete when I hit a point that feels like an ending–exact science, this stuff!), then I go back and decorate my rooms. I add color and texture, use all of my senses, try to create a picture that my imaginary readers will see in their heads, and then I basically second-guess things, make changes, tweak, delete, add, and mold until it feels…done. Voila. A book. Granted, one that still needs lots of editing, reading by other eyes, and probably more changes, but a book nonetheless! As we speak, I’m about ten thousand words away from finishing draft one of the second book in my series–so here’s to a 3-day weekend and the chance to get it done!