Dip Your Toe in the Water, and–Pow! Tsunami

Ever run outside to play ball when you were a kid, only to have all the balls in the whole game come flying at your head? That’s what it felt like when I went to my first writers’ conference.

Dumb and innocent, I planned to stay in the background and absorb. You know: be cool, scope things out. Invisible as a ninja at midnight.

That didn’t happen. And I’m glad it didn’t.

Scottsdale, Arizona was a short plane hop away from where I lived and the Desert Dreams conference offered a lot. Sharon Sala was the featured speaker and I’d just read a pile of her books. Diana Gabaldon, whose stories I love, was the guest of honor. Agent Donald Maass would be there and so would Paula Eykelhof from Harlequin. It was perfect.

After dropping my bag in my room, I threw on a clean shirt and started walking, following the directions of the desk clerk, who’d waved her hand “back there” when I asked where the conference was. As I wandered around the huge central plaza, a woman asked me to take a photo of herself and another two women. “Sure!” I said, and reached for her camera.

That’s when I first noticed the name tag problem. The names were small. I’m nearsighted, but rarely wear my glasses since they make the floor bend when I walk.

She was agent Mary Sue Seymour.

Okay, I’d do this courtesy, then fade back.

But after I took the picture, one of the women changed off and suddenly I was going to be in a picture. I just checked on line and couldn’t believe it–the photo’s still in the Seymour Agency photo gallery! It’s toward the end, but it’s there. I’m the one in the blue shirt. So much for my ninja ability.

As I was about to wander off again, Mary Sue Seymour asked me to come along with them to a reception. Dumb and innocent (do you see a pattern?), I said, “Sure!” We split up inside and I wandered around the suite, tried an hors d’oeuvre — caviar? very nice–and began to notice that some of the names on the name tags had a familiar shape.

Determined to get at least one good look, I picked the most benevolent-looking person I could find, a white-haired woman seated against the wall. The name came into focus as I bent closer and closer. Sh– Sharon– Sharon Sala. By that time, my nose was practically in her bosom.

Dear lady, she just looked at me sweetly, not yet alarmed. Maybe she should have been!

I backed away and hurried into the next room. A dapper, cosmopolitan-looking man with a New York haircut came in from the terrace, holding a bottle of wine and studying the label with satisfaction. As he came closer and closer, his name tag slowly focused. Don-ald Ma-a-ss. He glanced at me quizzically in passing, probably wondering why this woman with the wild eyes was so red in the face.

By now I was emotionally exhausted enough to realize that someone had been following me around, softly repeating, “Are you in the right place?” in a worried voice. I apologized and left after she explained this was the agents’ and editors’ welcoming reception.

Outside, a large group had congregated in the plaza and a man was at the microphone, talking about the arts. Finally! People were getting food from a buffet, so I did, too. As I filled my mouth, the speaker introduced some people from the audience, who all seemed to be… music teachers.

I sneaked away again, but this time not before I finished eating.

There was a big writers’ conference here. Surely I could find it!

I marched back to the lobby, determined to get a straight answer from that desk clerk. But the lobby must’ve been a quarter-mile away. How big was this hotel? At last I got there, sank into a chair in a corner and pulled out my pad and pen to calm myself and regain my ninja-like invisibility.

In a few minutes, a woman with long brown hair, wearing an exquisite green velvet jacket, strode through the front door and headed straight for me. I may have cringed.

“You look like a writer,” she said. “Can you show me where the main hall is? I’m tonight’s guest speaker.” She held out her hand. “Diana Gabaldon.”

That did it. I’d had enough!

“Wait here a minute,” I told her. I marched to the front desk, got real directions from the clerk and led Diana Gabaldon to the main hall (yet a further quarter-mile away). It was filled with writers, who burst into applause as she went up the aisle to the podium.

The next day, I attended a group appointment with Paula Eykelhof. The other writers didn’t have much to say to her, sitting with hands folded in front of them, willing themselves to be invisible.

Not me! Man, I threw questions into that resounding silence like I was a Hall of Fame pitcher.

The next morning, as I was having breakfast alone, Paula Eykelhof put her tray down on my table and joined me. We talked about whether my kind of stories might be a good match for Harlequin. That breakfast encouraged me to work on subsequent projects with Harlequin in mind.

That was a few years ago and, well, none of my novels are published yet. I know they can be. It takes a while to learn how not to be invisible, but I’m on the road to recovery.

So, you reading this, I know that whatever you want to do is out there waiting for you, too. Dip your toe in the water, and the tsunami will come to you.

By S.J. Driscoll

Don’t Bleach and Iron Your Work

Guest Post by Alica McKenna Johnson

Tips for Adding Diversity to Your Writing

1. I cheat. My YA series has many people from different cultural backgrounds and takes place in different countries. I have written it in 1st person. My MC is a female who was raised without an ethnic culture of her own, but was exposed to many cultures and lifestyles growing up in group homes in San Francisco. I don’t have to know how the other characters’ cultural background influences their perspective–I only have to know what they show my MC. And, yes, they do show cultural differences, but this is not as in depth as other POV’s need to be.

2. I read books written by people and about people from many different backgrounds. I also watch foreign and LGBT films. And, yes, a media portrayal of people from other countries isn’t necessarily a clear picture. Neither is my book. It’s a fantasy–a story of fiction, and the books and movies allow me to add little details that make my characters come through clearly. They also help me to break stereo types.

3. Basic research. I read travel books–specifically children’s books as they give a greater sense of culture flavor. I also watch travel shows–Bizarre Foods and No Reservations being two of my favorites.

4. I’ve taken classes on writing about people from other cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Two of my favorites were How to Write Realistic Native American Characters and How to Write Realistic Gay Characters. I loved both of them and learned a lot! I learned what stereotypes are and what things are culturally true. I learned that, like everyone else, there is a huge range of personalities and backgrounds.

5. I’m not afraid to offend people. I don’t go out of my way to offend people, however, if I want my curvy blond to be panting for the sexy black waiter with the great round butt, then that’s what I’m going to do. That being said–I will do research and ask someone who is black to read my story and see what they think. Is every black person going to be happy? No, but I can’t make everyone happy anyway. There are white characters I don’t relate to at all. I ranted through the movie 30 Days of Night because I lived in Alaska and there were big technical errors–it happens. Tell your story, research, get advice, do your best, and write.

6. Not everyone grew up in a cultural household. I’m mostly German; you wouldn’t have any idea of that by watching my life. I have a friend who is Zuni. Going into her house gives you no sense of her cultural background and she grew up on a reservation and still practices the Zuni religion. I have a friend whose family is Italian. At Thanksgiving they have turkey, stuffing, smoked octopus, pasta, and pumpkin pie. You get a sense of her culture because that is how her family lives.

Just because your character has brown skin doesn’t mean they identify or were raised in an ethnic and cultural environment. You don’t have to be perfect, you can stay within the things you know and are comfortable with. Maybe your Chinese character has a Buddhist altar in their home and hates egg rolls. Mix it up!

7. We are all people. Under the bindis and jeans, bling and manicures, Chanel No. 5 and sandalwood, we are all people. We want to feel safe and loved and special. We want a home, a family, and to be happy. What that looks likes differs from one person to another. A home in the burbs with two kids and a dog can be the dream of an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, yet might be a nightmare for an Indian couple.

No matter what your skin color or who catches your eye, lust, longing, love they all feel the same. Does the shape of a mouth change the passion and nervousness of a first kiss?

8. It’s okay for them to have flaws. While stereotypes are wrong concerning everyone of a race, religion, or sexual orientation, some come from a problem, issue, or quirk that is common within that community. There is an alcohol problem among Native Americans; they also have a higher risk of diabetes. Not all Native American have either of these issues, but they are a concern within the Native American Community. Don’t believe me, go to tribal websites and see what programs and services they offer, many have drug and alcohol programs and some have nutrition/diabetes programs. People have to deal with drugs, alcohol, abuse, and gangs–it doesn’t matter what color they are, who they have sex with, or how much money they make. Having a character dealing with these issues doesn’t mean you are stereotyping them.

We are all people with stories to tell. So tell them. Be brave and see your characters uniqueness. Don’t Bleach and Iron your books, no one wants to read that. Delve into your creativity, your heart, and your mind. Imagine what life is like for someone else–you do it all the time–unless some of you really are vampires and werewolves.

And for those of you creating whole new worlds: there is no excuse for not having more diversity in your characters. You don’t have to deal with social issues in a steampunk alternate universe with dragons–just let that go and have people living together peacefully (well, except for the soul sucking demons).

For expanded versions of these tips, plus foreign film reviews to help you broaden your cultural knowledge, come to my blog at www.alicamckennajohnson.com.

Thanks, Alica!

Two for Wednesday: Novels by Miller and Esposito

Darwin Winters, reluctant pet physic, is determined to shed her family’s stigma in Savannah, so she strikes out on her own and opens a pet boutique in St. Pete. When a local homeless man she befriends is found dead, Darwin uses her gift to help collar the killer. She adopts the dead man’s grieving mastiff, Karma, and with the dog’s help pieces together the events of that fatal night. Accepting visions is one thing, but can she succeed without revealing her powers to the jaded yet drool-worthy detective in charge of the case?

Shannon Esposito is a Florida science and mystery writer. Her two speculative fiction novels are STRANGE NEW FEET and SAHARA’S SONG. In between her day job of wrangling toddlers, she is working on a paranormal murder mystery, THE MONARCH. Exploring the unknown through writing fiction is her idea of magic. Her novels are sometimes steeped in science and sometimes wrapped in the paranormal but, as in real life, the heart of all stories is the mystery.

Soon available on Amazon and in every other format on Smashwords.com


Frank Potter, a young, divinely inspired black man, and Samson Boudreaux, a white man of great power and greater weakness, live in a house of haunted women.  And when the possibilities of miracle surrounding Frank become all too real, a tragedy of Christ and consequence unfolds in the American Deep South during the years of the Great Depression.

“Heroic morality, supernatural insight, and a unique authorial voice that will please any lover of quality American literature. Readers will also recognize and appreciate the novel’s historical authenticity… winner of the Oklahoma Writers’ competition for best mainstream novel, a Deep South Writers Prize from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and an Arkansas Governor’s Arts Award.” Reviewer: A.M. Stickel, The Pedestal Magazine

M.G. Miller is a Southern Gothic novelist and former fiction editor for a national horror magazine.

Available on Kindle Christmas 2011 from Southern Exposures Press

One picture is worth a thousand drafts

You’ll see that these notes for a short story aren’t notes at all. Not in the usual sense:

As a first draft, recently I started making schematics of stories instead of writing pages of words that might or might not be changed later.

Using a schematic lets me think about the story without falling in love with or worrying about how it’s going to be written. It frees me from the words, structures, cadences the story will be communicated by, and lets me concentrate on the story itself.

You see a beginning at the left top, the story progression along the middle and the end at the top right. The piece of paper torn from a small spiral notebook shows the first ideas about the story captured in a sketch.

Those sixteen cartoons along the bottom represent possible endings, of which fifteen have been rejected. The ending I’m still considering is represented by the little car, which isn’t crossed out yet. There’s still room in the middle to add other possible endings or sketch some significant details.

The theme of the story is shown by that sequence starting with the word, “why.”

Doesn’t look like much to you, does it? But it doesn’t have to. Preverbal, I guess it’s called? This isn’t communication yet because it doesn’t have to be. This picture shows the state of the story in my mind. The communication–the writing–will come after the story has a form.

Once I get used to this new method for short stories, I’ll probably try it at novel length. Already that sounds like a great relief to me–not to be bogged down in all those words just to plan a story. And the words will be fresh since they’ll come later.

Do you think this technique might be useful to you?

Maybe we could start NaNoSkeMo–National Novel Sketching Month!

By S.J. Driscoll

Bye-bye, Plally Jane

Kristen Lamb–The Kristen–is teaching a bunch of us writers about social media. Her voice echoes in my head: Your name is your brand. Your name is your brand.

That’s a tetchy subject with me. My name is the story of my life.


Which part should become my name–my brand?

My poor dad used to tell how he once took me to the grocery store when I was tiny and bragged to the cashier about how smart I was.

“She can say her own name already,” he said. Then he turned to me, sitting in the shopping cart. “Go ahead, honey. What’s your name?”

I sized up the situation. Finally, I said, “Plally.”

The cashier shrugged. Just another new daddy telling a tall tale about his kid.

Years later, Dad would still say, bewildered, “I don’t know why you did that.”

I know why. I HATE my first name. I’ve always hated it. Apparently since the time I learned to talk. Probably before that.

With apologies to all the other Sallys out there, Plally is an improvement.

Fast forward to my first real job. Boss assigned me to write a public relations piece for the New York Daily News. My first professional publication! What name would I use? It didn’t seem to matter that I wouldn’t get a byline. I needed a new persona. My writing persona.

Wilhelmina Euphraisie Sophronia McFrimple Sterling, Fifth Duchess of Norfolk, Jersey and Perth–

Like distant thunder, The Kristen’s voice came rumbling down from my future: Not the name of a purse doggie or a Triple Crown winner or an 18th-century courtesan. Just, you know, a name. You.

But who is “me”? Over the years, I’ve written and/or been published as Sally Greenberg, Sally Darnowsky, S. Darnowsky (maybe–I don’t remember), Sally Jane Driscoll. How many lives have I had, anyway? How many of me are there?

When the time came to get serious and write novels, it was really time to decide.

So I looked at author’s names on book spines. The “k” sound is good. Should be shortish. Helps if it’s euphonious. Rhythmic. Would be nice if it had a balanced shape.

After my long-ago divorce, a Maryland court charged me three hundred dollars for the right to use my mother’s maiden name. I’m determined to get my money’s worth. How about plain ol’ Sally Driscoll?

A quick check on line coughed up a hundred of ’em (hi, everybody!).

The Kristen’s voice in my head, now edgy: This isn’t rocket science, dammit. Just pick a name!

S.J.! Yeah, that’s it. S.J. Driscoll. “K” sound, rhythmic, balanced. Fits on a book cover (if only). No other S.J. Driscolls out there that I can find.

Except Stan Driscoll, who owns the S J Driscoll Company (hi, Stan!). And @sjdriscoll84 on Twitter (hi, Steve!) And my ex used to call me SJ–

The Kristen: Put a sock in it, girl.

So that’s the end of this saga. S.J. Driscoll. For better or worse.

But my friends call me Plally–er, Sally. You could, too.

By S.J. Driscoll

The other world

Another world intersects with our city world of work, cars, media, shopping.

Our ancestors knew it. Few of us do.

This other world isn’t supernatural. It’s not in another dimension.

It’s where we came from. It’s still here, but we left.

So sometimes it comes to visit.

The squirrel steals the figs off our fig tree. The armadillo roots up our newly planted rosebush. The deer eat our young crepe myrtle down to the roots. The feral sow, with her thirty-six piglets, feeds in our garbage can. The coyote pack, which we hear at night howling at the edge of sleep–howling until the neighborhood dogs yelp in envy–the coyotes disappear our cat. The panther, en route from Colorado to Mexico, growls at us out of the brush at the side of the road when we take our evening walk.

They’re just saying hello. They’re saying, we’re here whether or not you acknowledge us.

They’re saying, come out of your house.

A deer trail angles across our front yard. When we first moved here, we were shocked every time the deer passed through. It was as if someone’s herd of cows was roaming free, browsing on our grass. Fawns are born twenty feet from our front door. They and their mothers bed down at night on our side lawn.

Now, when I go into the city, I’m ill at ease. Something’s missing. Everyone’s human. Where are the other beings?

There’s a legend in this area that a herd of bison once escaped through a break in a fence. A whole herd of bison. No one ever found them.

They’re here, though, living down in Devil’s Hollow. If we hide in one of the caves tonight, we’ll see them pass by.

World enough and time

A casual acquaintance once explained how she managed to have the time and resources to paint.

“Painting was my passion,” she said. “I was pretty good, too. Then I had kids, and with my family, my husband, my job, I didn’t paint for years. The kids are grown, I’m retired and my husband encourages me. He even built me a studio. So I paint.”

She shrugged and turned away. “But it’s all gone now.”

That was years ago. As I write this, I feel the same shudder as when she told me.

Yesterday I spent hours looking for contracts for a couple of old published stories. Instead, I found boxes—the kind that holds ten reams of paper—boxes full of my words. Finished and unfinished stories and novels, notes on stories and novels, notes on writing classes and techniques, charts, lists… As I came across each item, I remembered clearly how and when I worked on it. I remembered each idea.

Only a few ideas grew into completed stories and only a few of those stories were published. Why?

Here are a couple of possibilities:

My job’s one deadline after another and I resent carrying that over to my writing.

During my window of opportunity when my kids were little and I wasn’t working full time, my stories began to get published. Then life happened: family member’s serious illness, divorce, demanding new job, bought/lost house, two cross-country moves and more.

These feel more like excuses than reasons, though. Some people overcome much greater difficulties and succeed.

At least I haven’t given up. I’m close. Work and study have improved my writing tremendously.

I’m doing something wrong.

What are you doing right—or wrong?

By S.J. Driscoll

The old oak

This is the view from my desk: the middle of the old live oak. Because of the drought and the devastating fires in Bastrop, two days ago some friends thinned its branches away from our house. It was wrenching to see the old limbs drop, but the rain came and the tree is fine. Now my view includes a tiny triangle of the far ridge.

Brooklyn and Turkey

Initial Twitter comments on my Daily Science Fiction story, “In Vivo,” are “Great twist” from @AnneEJohnson in Brooklyn and “Amazing and somehow disgusting at the same time” from @kisalar in Turkey. 🙂
Brooklyn and Turkey. I love the Internet.

Two sides to my head

I was elated when Daily Science Fiction accepted “In Vivo,” one of my speculative fiction stories.

That’s my third pro level spec fiction publication since I had a story in Asimov’s and one in Interzone under my previous name.

For the last few years, I’ve been learning to write novel-length contemporary romance. I’ve garnered helpful editorial rejections that taught me to focus on strengthening my plots. Selling this little story in my old genre came as a delightful surprise.

I was uneasy to return to the quicker pace of short story writing after the long, slow haul of writing at novel length, but my mind’s boiling over with spec fiction ideas and there’s now a sheaf of drafts/ideas on my writing desk.

Which to concentrate on is the question, isn’t it? All I can do is write both spec fiction and romance, and see where it all leads.

So these days I’m getting up earlier. If the birds have started twittering, I’ve stayed in bed too long. (And sometimes I do.)

My third desk

The photo at the beginning of this blog shows my work desk and my writing desk in my office. Now I now have a first draft desk, too, in our converted garage, where I can turn my notes into a first draft in longhand. While writing early in the morning, I can look out into the woods to see the deer crossing the yard and the squirrel raiding the fig tree.