The Element of Surprise

Once upon a time I published Once Upon a Dream, a novella duet with Mary Balogh. Mary’s readership is large and loyal (and includes me!), and never have I ever published a novella as successfully as I did that one. Once upon a dream, indeed!

But all good things must end, and by agreement we de-published the duet when momentum slowed. I tossed the story, Duke of My Dreams, onto the Get Around To It pile to be repackaged and republished some fine day. The companion tale, May I Have This Duke, had been sitting on the same pile for a year or so. In January of this year, I dusted off both stories, and packaged them as A Duke Walked Into a House Party.

I wasn’t expecting much. Both stories had sold well in their respective bundles, and the reader appetite for novellas isn’t what it was five years ago. Then too, I’d taken a A Duke Walked into a House Party by Brace Burrowesdifferent direction on the cover for the repackaging, just because the image appealed to me. The title was a little silly but it fit the stories and the cover.

For these re-packaging efforts, all I’m really looking for is to break even and keep some stories in circulation. I hope to pay for a cover, another proof-read, formatting, uploading, and website wrangling. My second repackaging effort–A Lady Without Peer–conformed to my expectations in that regard. But A Duke Walked In exceeded the job description by an order of magnitude.Wheeee!

Other surprises haven’t been so cheery. There are a few authors will bash other authors and even include it as part of their reader-relationship brand. That one honestly caught me unaware. In all my years of small town lawyering, I can’t think of any instance when one lawyer bashed another personally without getting severely chastised by other bar members or by the bench–or eventually disbarred–for violating the Code of Professional Conduct.

There’s a human tendency to normalize surprises, to shrug them off if they are unpleasant–“Live and learn…”–or to treat them as anomalies if they are sweet. But the book business is so unpredictable and complicated, that I don’t think that’s wise. I want to try more covers like A Duke Walked In, because whatever I did, readers liked it. Or maybe they simply noticed it, or maybe I hit publish in a window when no other dukes were strutting around.

My attempt in Lady Without Peer to strike the same cover note didn’t achieve the same result, so I’m not sure what clicked, but something did, and I want to investigate that something so I can make it click again.

When I’ve minimized a surprise–a boyfriend behaving badly, a backstabbing work environment–I’ve regretted it. Surprises can hold good information, or at least make us ask good questions, and that’s an opportunity for insight I want to take advantage of.

Have you been surprised lately? Can you recall a surprise that made you think or change course? To three commenters, I’ll send out e-ARCs of A Lady’s Dream Come True, which is available now in the webstore, and in print, and will start downloading from the major retailers on June 9.

Are We There Yet?

In its infinite wisdom, Amazon is now allowing readers to provide “quality assurance feedback” on ebooks, line by line, word by word. Readers can also provide input on plotting problems, and all of this ends up on an author’s brand spankin’ new QA dashboard. I got the email from Amazon mid-week, gleefully announcing that this great new feature is now live. I was cheerfully directed to please go through the 217 identified issues affecting seventeen different books, and let Amazon know how I’ll resolve each one.

This helps improve Amazon’s automation! [Insert muttered profanity of your choice here.] Occasionally, readers are genuinely typo-spotting, but mostly…

The day had not gone well before that little bombshell. Running errands in a Phase One opening state, where nobody knows which rules are in force and which ones have been lifted, made for a tedious day. I was also tired from a pretty bad night’s sleep, and then Amazon–who keeps 50 cents for every dollar I make at that site–drops 217 action items on me. If I don’t clear those action items, Amazon will put Mr. Yuck QA stickers on my books, and tank their rankings.

My mood sure tanked. I am normally pretty even-keeled, see-the-humor, this-too-shall-pass, but I got into a grumpy, overwhelmed, to heck with this, place. To a degree that it unnerved me a little, and I bethought myself: Well, what are you going to DO about this, Grace Ann? What can you do?

I did three things (besides make of a cup of tea and have some chocolate): First, I went for a ramble around the yard. I own the nucleus of a farmstead, so my property includes a pretty little bank barn, and I love that barn. I just like to behold it. For a few years, I kept horses in that barn, and that’s a happy memory. I love all my big trees, the sheer abundance of greenery around me, the endless potential for flower beds. Love it, love it.

Second, I picked myself a bouquet of German irises from the yard and put the bouquet where I will see it often.

Third, I went to YouTube, and loaded up on 80s dance tunes. Jump (Pointer Sisters version), Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Little Red Corvette, Sharp-Dressed Man, Never Gonna Break My Stride, I’m So Excited, and of course, It’s Raining Men, among others.

I chair-danced, I got up and shook it, I hit rewind, and I shook it some more. I looked ridiculous, of this I have no doubt, but the cats won’t tell anybody, and so what if they do. I’m of age, and it’s my caboose to do with as I please in the privacy of my own kitchen. I was not instantly ebullient, nor do I have much good to say about Amazon’s business values, but I did raise my spirits enough to get past the day’s speed bumps.

How do you boost your mood when the Undertoad tries to steal your fire? I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for A Lady’s Dream Come True.

The Sound of Beauty

I like quiet. I like to write in an environment so devoid of aural clutter that I can hear the florescent lights in my kitchen (and then turn them off), or–when I’m sitting at my kitchen table–I can hear the stream burbling through my yard fifty feet from the kitchen door. Quiet R Me.

I also like FRESH AIR, and tons of it. My little old (about 170 years old) house has a footprint of maybe 400 square feet. On the ground floor this footprint is punctuated with three doors to the big world, and nine separate windows. I like to open them ALL UP, and be one with the birdies and breezes, while hiding behind my computer or tromping along at my tread desk.

I have always been this way. My mother was this way. Fresh air is a cardinal virtue.

As a voracious reader of fiction, and somebody who has doubtless heard a lawn mower or two, you can see the conflict brewing. My closest neighbor is a farmer, and Dwayne–exceptionally nice, hard-working guy–never met a muffler worth maintaining or an engine that couldn’t be gunned. My other neighbor–Mike, another all around good fella–is yard proud–weed-whacking, leaf-blowing, riding mower wrangling, yard proud.

And my yard requires a lot of maintenance too, being a couple of acres, full of trees, surrounded by nature green in leaf and limb, and dotted with my oddly placed flower beds. For thirty years, I’ve had the same yard guy, and while I valued this man’s contribution to keeping me out of dutch with the weed control officer, I wasn’t so keen on his timing. Eric had the knack of riding up on his zero-turn just as I was sitting down to write a hot scene.

Or a big black moment.

Or the first kiss.

There I’d be, with His Grace of Hunklyness poised to put that taciturn mouth of his to good use offering something other than snappy repartee, and along comes Eric with his Pratt and Whitney UL approved weed-whacker right outside my window. Nary a weed dared remain standing in the face of such determination, and His Grace usually turned tail and ran too.

Eric retired last year, after decades of faithful, uncomplaining, utterly reliable, and conscientious-as-hell service. I wished him well–what else was there to do?–and scrounged around until another mowing service agreed to tame the jungle for a modest fee.

They came once, did a half-assed job. From there, it was no call/no shows, followed by rescheduling texts and more no-shows. My yard began to resemble a vacant lot, and I could hear the mountain getting ready to drag my property back to the wilderness, complete with cat-eating coyotes and Grace-menacing snakes. My house is at best a fixer-upper, and for the yard to go to knee-high weeds was surprisingly hard on my morale.

I don’t put much nevermind on gray hair, extra pounds, or wrinkles, but for my yard to fall apart felt like the forces of chaos were winning.

Eric came to the rescue, got the place in trim, and is lining up a successor who someday might come close to the level of expertise Eric brought to the yard work. The day Eric showed up to do battle with the jewel weed, I heard him fire up his lawnmower, and rejoiced greatly. A sound I had HATED, for years, became the sound of order, of a man’s kindness, of peace and repose in the place where I live and work.

Have you had any changes of perspective like that? Where you saw an old foe in a new and more constructive light? I’ll add three more commenters’ names to my ARC list for A Lady’s Dream Come True.

Corona Time

For 25 years, the rhythm of my life was defined by a full day in court on Thursdays. I had court on other days–sometimes every day of the week–but Thursday was the courthouse’s designated day to hear child welfare cases, for the whole day.

I’d start my week on Monday, focusing on the cases to be heard the two or three Thursdays out, and catching up on lose ends for the cases coming up that week. As court approached, children, parents, and foster parents would often get stressed, and sometimes do dumb things–run away, get arrested, relapse–that changed the whole posture of the case. What fun. Not.

Fridays I would be pretty worthless. I could read reports, return phone calls, or work on accounting tasks, but Friday was for decompressing. The weekend was for housework and family time, and then Monday, I was back in the saddle. I am still aware of the echoes of this routine. I take particular delight in not being on court on Thursdays, and some Fridays I find myself unaccountably without traction.

When I’m even aware of the day of the week. Nothing–nothing at all–marks my days of the week now. I don’t have riding lessons on Monday and Thursday, don’t have a kid in school five days a week, don’t have Sunday services, or a weekly virtual movie night. I’m a happy little asteroid floating loose in the universe of time.

For the most part, I am enjoying the lack of structure. I get tons done, and I do mean tons. I’m happy to frolic in my book tasks the livelong day/week/month/whatever, and I think this must have been what life was like for Og and Ogette, back when we lived in caves. I do what needs doing next, I lay down for twenty minutes in the middle of the day if I get the urge to stretch out.

If I can’t sleep, I get up and write, without a thought that, “Well, three hours of sleep isn’t going to work. You’ll be worthless by afternoon and that when Something Scheduled Has to Happen.” I do the writing and then nap, if that’s how the day goes. Am I lucky, or what?

When I need to play in the yard for a few hours, I do that. When the shelves are getting bare, I make a raid on the grocery store. My life is not driven by anybody else’s schedule, except in a general way by the season of the year, the weather, and my penchant for flower gardening. I like this. This is something I want to recall if life ever returns to What Was Before.

Is there anything you’ll keep from your pandemic life? Anything better about it? I’ve started making my ARC list (both ePub and mobi this time) for A Lady’s Dream Come True, and I’ll add at least three commenters to it!

 

If I’m to Be Honest…

The launch of A Duke by Any Other Name is behind me, and if I’m to be honest, I’m relieved. I love Nathaniel and Althea’s story (prodigal pigs!), in fact I love the whole Rogues to Riches series, but in the lead-up to a release, I’m generally on social media more.

Guess where, exactly, I do not want to be these days?

Because I refuse to remain signed in to Facebook, I get to my author page by logging in, and then I’m presented with my “home” feed. Sometimes, I do pretty well at going straight to my page, posting on my page, and not commenting or liking or otherwise going down rabbit holes. Other times, especially as evening approaches, (I NEVER do social media in the morning), I am more easily distracted by what FB wants me to see.

And what FB wants me to see lately is a lot of anxiety, foolishness, judgment, and trolling. If I surf the news sites, it’s more of same, and those sites host a lot of “paid content,” that is pure tripe. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and when I’m overwhelmed, I’m more easily manipulated away from the person I want to be.

Emotions can be contagious. We know that. Conformity is contagious, anxiety and calm are contagious, happiness is really contagious. And I want to be the sort of person who’s contributing the calm, happy, funny vibes–and feeling those vibes–especially in the midst of uproar. So I did as this article suggests, and inoculated myself against the trolls and tripe by writing down who exactly I want to be in these trying times. This is what showed up on the page:

Even in the midst of chaos I want to be constructive, good-humored, patient, and resilient. I want to have a smile for everybody, and I want to be generous with my resources. Above all, I want to be kind and sensible, and unimpressed with fear-mongering and divisiveness. I want to see and celebrate the silver linings, and have compassion for those struggling with darkness of any kind.

Just writing that out (I wrote it on paper) left me feeling more like a Jedi knight, and less like somebody who has been putting off a shower all day–and what day is this again? I feel less helpless–I can smile with my voice and my eyes even when I’m wearing my mask–and I can donate to the Author’s Guild for Giving Tuesday Now. I have control over me, and from there I can make my micro-contributions to the bigger solutions.

So how do you protect yourself from getting frayed? Who do you want to be in these dratted interesting times? For three commenters, I’ll donate $50 to the charity of your choice.

 

When All Else Fails…

I mentioned last week that having the freedom to write day after day has resulted in… carpal tunnel symptoms in my left wrist and hand. I don’t mind that it hurts–compared to a three-day migraine it’s nothing–I mind that it scares me. This is a condition that sometimes only admits of surgical treatment, and that means downtime, expense, logistical challenges, and woe is me.

Other worries in the current environment go Yertle the Turtling on top of that fretful situation, and pretty soon, I am in a corona-funk. Everything is awful, the sky is falling, and I’ve already finished the new Julia Quinn, the new C.S. Harris AND Ozan Varol’s first mainstream nonfiction title. Whatever shall I do?

My worries are trivial compared to the life and death stakes many people are facing, but lecturing me about that doesn’t help my outlook. “It could always be worse,” is, to me, a Hail Mary pass thrown at reason on a playing field full of legitimate, painful emotions. It could always be better too, ya know.

I think back, though, to my parents, who endured the Great Depression; WWII (Dad served, Mom was a nurse); the Korean War; McCarthyism; Vietnam (my oldest brother served); Watergate; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Medger Evers, and Harvey Milk; the Kent State shootings; and various other wars, recessions, miseries, and scandals since. They both grew up without penicillin (Mom turned out to be allergic to it),  and with the ongoing threat of polio.

And you know how my parents coped? Welp, Dad generally had two double martinis every night after work. The first was in his hand within ten minutes of arriving home, and, “Mama, can I fix you a drink?” was probably his way of saying, “Honey, I love you.” In my mother’s words, “that was how you coped.” They may not have been the greatest generation, but they were certainly the drinking-est generation. And no, I never saw either parent drunk.

Some people cope with adherence to a faith tradition, some with music or exercise, some with a glass of chardonnay, some with books (Yay!!!), some with meditation or journaling. I’m personally consuming a bit more dark chocolate than usual–a big bit.

But my bedrock coping mechanism is to default to gratitude. As worried and scattered as I’m feeling, as disruptive as a sore paw (and a little bitty pandemic) could be for a chubby, aging, full time writer, what am I grateful for?

Ethically sourced dark chocolate, that’s for bleepin’ sure. Medical professionals who can fix a sore paw. Technology like dictation software that means this is not the end of the world, Grace Ann. Readers who like what I write enough to keep a roof over my head. Nifty little wrist cuffs that, for $19.99, will keep me from messing up my hand any further. My bloggin’ buddies, who stop by this space to share wisdom, wit, and worries…

And pretty soon, after I go down the gratitude gopher hole, I’m feeling less anxious and more settled. So what I want to know is: How do you cope? To three commenters, I’ll send SIGNED print ARC’s of A Duke by Any Other Name (c’mon, Tuesday!).

Curmudgeons Are Us

When people ask me how I’m doing with this lock-down business, my answer is quite cheery. “I’m used to tons of time at home, and I love my solitude. I’m doing pretty well, actually!” And that’s true. Maryland has been social distancing since early March, and we have apparently succeeded in flattening the curve… so far. Governor Hogan, a  cancer survivor in his sixties (and a Republican), has cautioned all and sundry that reopening will be a slow, cautious process, and the first steps are at least a month away.

It helps to know my state leadership is erring on the side of my safety, and it helps tremendously that I am one of the 25 percent of the workforce who can work at home. My stay-at-home angst is also eased by the fact that lately, I haven’t been among the forty percent of the population living paycheck to paycheck. I have lean times, but I also have family who would give me a hand if I fell ill and could not work for weeks.

Nonetheless, I’m getting a little crispy. On social media, I’m tempted to snark at both the social distancing police who delight in shaming anybody who puts a foot wrong, and those misguided souls who believe a constitution intended to balance a series of conflicting rights has morphed into a guarantee absolute freedoms. I get snappish at all the “fun quizzes” on Facebook hiding a sinister invasion of privacy agenda, though Facebook has been allowing those quizzes to invade our privacy for years.

And yet, the only thing that lock-down has changed for me, really, is that I don’t go to the horse barn twice a week. How lucky am I, to be so minimally impacted by what is an ongoing tragedy for many others? Even so…

Going to the horse barn to ride for 45 minutes means driving an hour each way through the beautiful Maryland countryside. It means interacting with people I don’t see otherwise. It means about thirty minutes of quietly hand-grazing my darling pony, phone off, nobody else around, just me, the beast, the grass, and the quiet.

So 45 minutes in the saddle turns into a long half day away from the place where I both live and work. It involves a change of scene, conversation with real human beings, relaxation, and a different physical challenge than I face anywhere else. These two outings are my big adventures for the week, my best times of contemplation, and my biggest break from a job that I sometimes do eighteen hours a day without putting on my shoes.

I suspect this lack of breathing room is part of why I have such easy access to my inner curmudgeon lately. Which brings me to my question: If you’ve had to socially distance from your frolics and detours, or the joys that feed your soul, how are you coping? How are you keeping that inner curmudgeon from taking over the whole house?

To three commenters, I’ll send an e-ARC of A Duke by Any Other Name. (And PS… I had my friend Graham make a trailer for this title–just for fun!)

 

 

The Better Normal

Occasionally, in the midst of a trying time, my sainted mother would catch me whinging and whining, and one of her stock responses was, “Well, yeah, it’s hard right now, but what do you learn on your good days?” She was making a backhanded reference to silver linings, teaching moments, or some other danged constructive perspective which I was usually incapable of appreciating at the time.

I’m looking around at this pandemic, and thinking, “This is the biggest, baddest snow day I have even seen in my life. It’s definitely new terrain for me personally and for my society. What useful insight can I take away from this?” In other words, how will this pandemic change the way I go about my life? How do I want to see it change my society for the better?

One thing I want is paid sick leave as a norm. If somebody brings enough to my organization that I’m hiring them as an employee, then they bring enough that I can cover them for a few weeks a year when they’re under the weather. People get sick, and we’re learning to our sorrow the cost of expecting that those who make the smallest wages–handling our food, looking after our old folks, staffing day care centers–should just work sick. Who ever thought that was a smart idea anyway?

Um, we did. Apparently?

For me personally, that means I should always have enough provisions on hand that I can stay home for a week or ten days if I’m sick. I wasn’t really thinking in those terms before, but I will now. It means keeping a few, “Been meaning to get around to it,” classics in my TBR pile. It means updating my will. (Still on the to-do list.)

I came across this article, which warns us that many highly motivated interests will encourage us all to forget this ever happened, and get back to “normal” as quickly as possible. But normal–full of distrust for the media, contempt for basic science, indifference to the planet’s welfare, relying on of some of the worst health care in the developed world (through no fault of our health care practitioners)–is a significant part of how we got here.

We have a chance to re-examine whether normal was working for us, and to decide what to do about the normal that wasn’t working. What lessons will you take away from our big snow day? How will this experience motivate you to build a better normal?

I’ll put three more commenters on my Advanced Reader Copy list for A Duke by Any Other Name. (Book comes out April 28, eARCs will start going out about April 17.)

 

Change One Thing

Like many people, I have more time on my hands lately to muse and ponder and think. I have been bedeviled by a question which popped into my head for no apparent reason:  Grace, if you could change one aspect of society right now, what would it be? Of course, I’d like a safe, readily available COVID-19 vaccine, but there will be another virus next year, and my question is aimed at societal structures.

I see posts about gerrymandering, voter suppression, wealth concentration, climate change, public health, corporate greed… all kinds of issue are begging for our attention. I came across a paper, though, that says at least when it comes to climate change, if you offer people a small step they can take that doesn’t really have a big impact (like getting rid of plastic shopping bags), then they are less likely to support the big measures (a carbon tax) that have been proven to have a real benefit.

The paper goes one step further. About 25 companies create half of our fossil fuel emissions worldwide, and 100 companies create more than 70 percent of global green house emissions. These companies are often major sponsors of the highly visible, barely effective measures that help us feel virtuous about our personal green agenda, while we move the global needle barely at all. The big dirty polluters know they are lulling us into a false sense of activism by throwing us these dog treats, and my friends, that really frosts my cookie.

So would I put at the top of my “things that need to change” list holding major polluters accountable? Well, that’s tempting, but that’s only one issue that we aren’t very well informed about. I think instead, I’d put reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine at the top of the list. This was the set of FCC rules that, until Reagan repealed them, required news coverage to be fair, balanced, and accurate. Another provision of the Fairness Doctrine was that people had to be told–prominently–whether what they were reading or hearing was news, opinion, or advertisement.

And NEVER the twain did meet.

Now? The networks cover whatever grabs ratings, “commentary” disguises bias as news, major advertisers provide content to news pages. (Looking at you, CNN…). If we do not have a reliable source of truth, of facts, of informed, disinterested analysis, then how can we intelligently move forward on any issue? We will spin our wheels on campaign finance reform, climate change, and just about every major issue out there, because we’ve been trained to expect entertainment instead of information from our “news” sources.

So that’s where I come down in terms of How to Fix Society: Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine first. Then you have a standard of truth, easily distinguishable from non-truth, and beholden to no one set of interests. It was a good plan, and it worked well for a long time, and from that foundation of truth we can attack all the other sharks swimming in our collective bathtub.

What’s on your mind these days? If you had three wishes, what would they be? To three commenters, I’ll send an ePub file of A Duke by Any Other Name, which is coming out on April 28. (And PS, Darius is on sale in the webstore this month for $3.99, and $4.99 at the major retailers!)

 

That’s My Motto

I am of the belief that as you travel on in life, if you are on the right path for you, you acquire regalia–outward trappings of your ever-more-bounteous inner majesty. Maybe your regalia is a scarf your grandma knit or a beer stein your dad picked up while serving our country in Germany. The value of your regalia lies in its emotional merit, its ability to anchor you to something genuine and precious in your life.

Among my regalia is a little slate coaster that I bought on my first visit to Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands. The trip was magical, a series of unfortunate events morphing into a little Cinderella moment for a woman on the backside of forty who dreamed of writing books someday. On the coaster is the motto of the Royal House of Stuart and the Order of the Thistle: Nemo Me Impune Lacessit. (Voltaire says it’s his motto too.)

This motto, which was dear to Queen Victoria, means, essentially: You mess with me, I’ll make you pay, or, nobody provokes me with impunity. For a woman barely five feet tall, ruling from a throne that hadn’t been held by a female in centuries, those words probably spoke to her heart. (And, lest we forget, she had nine kids and her adored hubby popped his clogs at the tender age of 42.)

The other night I was reading along in one of my improving tomes–I think it was Give and Take by Adam Grant?–and I learned that Frank Lloyd Wright’s family had a motto: Truth Against the World. I imagine young Frank, watching his dad raise a toast to the family motto–has a nice ring to it.

And then I bethought myself: What would Lord Stephen Wentworth’s motto be? Must think on that. (The title for his tale is, “How to Catch A Duke,” release date in about year.)

And then methinks: What is MY motto? My website says, “I believe in love,” and that’s true. My personal theory for why Romance as a genre scares so many people is because it’s about love, and love is the most positive, transformative power on earth. Scary business, and I believe in love strongly. But what’s my motto?

My prime directive is, “Be kind; tell the truth.” Having that moral touchstone in my ethical treasure box helps keep me going in an honorable direction, and true to myself. So I s’pose my motto might be: Honesty and Kindness. (Latin: Probitatis et Misericordiam.) Or maybe my motto is simply: Honor.

Family crests and coats of arms have mottoes. Schools have mottoes. Corporations have missions statements, but most of those read to me like so much blah-blah that the PR folks came up with for the shareholder report. Maybe corporations would be better citizens if they could boil their values down to a motto. Not my circus.

By I am curious: Do you have a motto? Does your family? Can you think up a motto that might be appropriate for muddling through the present interesting times? To one commenter, I will send a $25 B&N gift card.