Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The countdown to our writers’ retreat in Yellow Springs has started: only nine more months! To whet your appetites, here is a Q&A with presenter Donna MacMeans. As you can tell, she is very personable!

WHB: When did you first want to be a writer?

DM: I always thought I’d be an English teacher, not a writer, but I changed that plan after taking my first education course (grin). I switched to journalism so perhaps that was the moment. I was on a two-year scholarship at OSU. When my two years were up, I went home. I got married, moved to Cleveland and went to work at a company that would pay my way through school if I majored in Business. That’s how I ended up in Accounting. I finished up at OSU and became a CPA. I wrote a lot of inventory memos, but I’m guessing that’s not what you had in mind. 

Fast forward to the 1990s. I’ve always been a big reader, but not of romance. As a business executive, clinch covers were frowned upon. Then I read a book named Outlander. I loved it!!! Accolades of how this was a great romance filled several pages in front of the book. I figured if this was a romance, then I was a fool. I went back to bookstore and looked for a similar story. I found a romance with a similar premise that wasn’t a time-travel. However, I wanted to throw that book against the wall. I knew the solution to the story question by the end of the first chapter. Surely, it wouldn’t take a whole book to come to that solution—but it did. I figured I could do better, so I tried. My third complete manuscript won this big contest. I was called by an editor at a NY publishing firm who was interested in publishing that story. I didn’t say “yes” but I did call an agent. She sent the work to another publishing house that wanted it. A third house also was interested. My book was in an auction! Very cool. I think I considered myself a true professional author in that moment. Before that, I thought of myself as a writer, but perhaps more as a hobbyist. Either way, it’s been a fun journey!

All that said, I met the author of Outlander, Diana Gabaldon, many years later. She swears her book is not a romance. Go figure. 

WHB: What were the first meaningful things you wrote?

DM: Other than those long thank you notes that I wrote as a kid, and a short story that I wrote in high school that made my classmates think I was contemplating suicide (I wasn’t. It was fiction, people!), I wrote two full romantic suspense manuscripts that didn’t really go anywhere. Then I was invited to contribute a short story to a paranormal anthology. I did that and earned my first publishing credit—and total royalties of $50. I faced my first reviews! Fortunately, they were all good. Bad ones would have devastated me at that vulnerable time. I give away that short story to entice readers to sign up for my newsletter. No story is ever wasted! 

WHB: Is there anything you wish you had not written?

DM: Not really. I write the sort of stories that I want to read. I do wish, however, that I had published the stories in a different order. We’ll talk about that later.

WHB: Do you read your books after they’re published?

DM: LOL. Not really. You read the story to death while writing it, then you read it again in revisions, then again in the printing proofs. By the time the book is published, you’re really sick of the story. It’s lost its magic. But here’s a funny story. I recently got the rights back on two of my early books: the one that won that contest years ago and the first sequel. Because those were written in a time of paper revisions, I had to re-read the books and make corrections before I could put them back out as independently published books. I read the first book, The Education of Mrs. Brimley, and thought—I can’t believe I wrote this book. This is a really good story. The pacing is good, it’s funny, I like it. (It’s a Victorian Striptease, btw). After I published that first book, I started re-reading the second, The Seduction of a Duke. I thought—This book really stinks! Why didn’t someone tell me that the pacing was so slow! It’s taking me forever to get to the action! Fortunately, it did improve and it has a really good ending. Whew! I noticed it also had a lot of typos in the original published version—I don’t know how that happened with all the eyes editing the thing. But I fixed everything except the pacing and put it out there. The reviews have been good so I’m satisfied.

WHB: How do you feel about self-publishing?

DM: This will be long, so go refresh your drink. I’ll be here when you come back.

Back when I won that contest, there was a real stigma to self-publishing. The only, and I mean only, way to publish was through a traditional publisher or a small press. For a traditional publisher to sign you, your story had to fit in a rather narrow box. They had to be liked by thousands of people, which meant you had to write in popular tropes. Self-publishing was very expensive. There were a few small presses that published ebooks, but that concept of reading on a device didn’t catch fire until Amazon entered the market with their Kindle ereader. Amazon needed stories to fill those Kindles so they actively solicited authors to independently publish their stories on their platform. Many people who had stories rejected by the New York publishers tried their luck on Kindle. Some of those writers were really good, but they wrote stories (like Vampire stories) that appealed to smaller audiences (according to NY). Suddenly, no story is wasted. If NY didn’t buy it, it could be self-published at a minimal cost.

The traditional publishers weren’t about to let the ebook market go untouched. They issued paperbacks, but they also uploaded books to Amazon—grumbling all the way. Soon people would go to a brick and mortar bookstore, check the shelves, then order a book they liked on Amazon. The brick and mortar stores began to disappear due to lack of sales. Some of the independent authors were racking up big bucks (but still had a chip on their shoulder about NY).

About three or four years ago, independent publishing hit a tipping point. Traditional publishers quit giving author advances except to their bestsellers. They started handing out digital only contracts—no print books. Authors realized they could publish their books independently without New York’s blessing. There’re still a lot of crappy books in the indie-world, but there’s some really good ones, too. Independent authors can generate print books through Amazon’s CreateSpace, but many bookstores won’t carry those books in their stores. They haven’t forgotten what Amazon did to their market share. I can’t think of a single traditional published author now that isn’t planning to independently publish some books. But it’s a bit scary to make the jump. It’s a whole new world for publishing.

For what it’s worth, I’ve traditionally published six books with a NY publisher, one of which is digital-only. The rights have reverted on three of my traditional books, so I’ve indie-published those to really good results. (One thing I forgot to mention is that I only get paid every six months from NY and until recently, didn’t have access to any sales information. With indie-publishing, I get paid monthly. Big difference!) I’ve sold one book and one short story to small presses. Fortunately, my rights reverted before they went bankrupt, and I’ve indie-published those stories as well. I’ve written one time-travel, one paranormal novella, and two historical short stories that have been indie-published from the start. I guess I’m a mixed bag.

WHB: From when you first started seriously pitching your first book, how long did it take to be picked up?

DM: I’m not sure how to answer this. Are we talking my first written book, or my first book purchased for publication? My first written book has never been published. Let’s face it. An author’s first book is a massive learning curve. You learn a lot by getting to the end, but there’s still a lot of craft to learn. The brain can only absorb and process so much information at a time. Heck, I’m still learning and I’ve published nine books at this point. Now my first book purchased for publication is interesting in that it was rejected by every New York house—including the editor that later purchased it. I’d say I collected rejections on that book for a couple of years—but I kept working on it, revising it, improving it. Personally, I think many of the rejections had to do with the fact that it was a historical romance. Historicals were not popular around 2004 & 2005. In fact, I once received a rejection from an agent that was the standard rejection with a handwritten line at the bottom that said “This book has a lot of promise. Too bad it’s historical.” What the heck? It’s a Victorian striptease. It HAS to be historical. Historicals were a hard sell back then. Then the pendulum swung the other way and I sold the book. Sometimes a rejection has to do with the writing quality. Sometimes a rejection has to do with market issues. Sometimes a rejection has to do with sending a query to a firm that doesn’t handle the kind of book you’ve written. The problem is that editors and agents rarely tell you the real reason they are rejecting the book. I’m not sure that time matters.

As for pitching, I’d like to pass along this advice from the NY editor that purchased my first book. I had pitched this book at a reader’s event in Cincinnati. She seemed totally bored by my pitch. I figured submitting my work to her was a futile experience, but I did it anyway. After the auction was over, she called me. I told her, “I must admit, I was really surprised that you offered for the book. From that pitch session, I didn’t think you were interested.”

She said, “I do that on purpose. Some people can really pitch an amazing book, but when you read their pages, the writing is not good. Some people can’t pitch at all, but their pages sing. When I hear a pitch, I don’t think it’s fair to react either favorably or not because I haven’t seen the pages. It’s all about the pages.”

WHB: What is your writing routine? Do you have one?

DM: I’d like to lie and say I have a sharp disciplined routine, but that wouldn’t be true. Once I get caught up with the story and characters, I can’t stop writing. Until I get to that point, I can’t stop procrastinating. I’m basically a pantser (the opposite of a plotter). I know the structure of a book. I tend to know my turning points before I begin. But until I really understand my characters and fully work out their motivations…it’s a slow go.

I think the best motivation for sitting down and writing every day is a contract. If you decide to indie publish, then you need to set your writing goals and stick to them. Right now, my husband and I are babysitting my one-year old grandson for his young parents. That really kills my writing output as he’s here when I’m normally writing, but I’m not turning away this opportunity to spend time with the best grandson in the world. These times don’t last. I’m trying to change old habits and write at a different time of the day. We’ll see how this works.

WHB: If you didn’t write in your genre, what would you be writing?

DM: I’d probably be writing cozy mysteries. I even have a basic plan for a series of three connected cozy novels. But I love romance and don’t plan to write in a different genre for the moment.

WHB: What was your harshest rejection? What was your best?

DM: I hate to keep harping back on that first NY published book, but that’s when I received rejections. I understand editors don’t send out rejections anymore. They simply don’t respond. If they want your book, you’ll hear from them but no news is no longer good news.

You’d think my harshest rejection would come at the beginning of this journey, but those were actually gentle. The only rejection that brought me to tears came when I knew I was close to selling my book. Central Ohio Fiction Writers had brought in a NY editor, Kate Duffy, to take pitches at one of their events. Kate had purchased books of some of my friends. I really thought she’d like my story. At the event, she mentioned that she thought the next big thing would be historicals. I sat up straighter. She held up a historical romance by Lisa Kleypas and said, “bring me something like this and I’ll buy it.” I’d already read that book. It was funny and sexy, just like my book. I pitched my story to Kate and she requested a partial (three chapters and a synopsis). I volunteered to drive her back to the airport so I could talk further with her. At one point she said, “Well heck, just pull over and I’ll write you a check!” I laughed and said, “Just wait, you’ll see. You’ll love this book.” I sent the chapters she’d requested in the October 2005 convinced that she’d be my editor. Then I heard…nothing.

In April 2006, I learned that my story was a finalist in that prestigious contest. I sent an email to Kate reminding her that I hadn’t heard anything from her and that this story was a Golden Heart finalist. In late May, I got a reply. It was a rejection. A very kind and complimentary letter, but it was a rejection. I was so close…SO CLOSE…but it was a rejection. I called a published author friend whose editor was Kate Duffy and we talked, and I couldn’t help it, the tears flowed. My friend was encouraging. She pointed out the good things Kate said…but it was a rejection and it really, really hurt. That was in May. In July, I left for the RWA convention where the winners of the Golden Heart would be announced. Kate’s rejection convinced me that I would always be a runner-up, I wouldn’t be a winner. I didn’t bother writing an acceptance speech – what was the point? I didn’t buy a new dress or wear spanx to the ceremony. I figured if I was going to sit in the audience, I might as well be comfortable. I didn’t expect to win that contest, but I did, and everything immediately changed.

About four years later, I heard from a group of writers that Kate Duffy spoke to their local chapter. Someone had asked her if she ever regretted rejecting a book. She said that a few years ago, she’d had the opportunity to hop on the Victorian bandwagon but she passed on the book. She regretted that. The author said, “she was talking about you.”

Kate Duffy died in 2009 at the age of 56. Many of her authors were released from their contracts. Others were reassigned to other editors who may or may not have wanted them. In hindsight, I was fortunate not to have been purchased by Kate Duffy, but I sure didn’t feel fortunate when I opened that rejection letter.

My best rejection letter was one that I received for that same book probably around 2003. I had written two Romantic suspense novels at that point and had built a sense of suspense around the opening chapters of my historical. That editor sent me a rejection letter but strongly encouraged me to include more humor. She said not everyone can write humor but that she thought I could. I took her suggestion to heart. I think her suggestion made the book more fun for me and more unique to the market. I’ll be forever grateful for her comment, even though it was a rejection.

WHB: Where do you think your genre is going? What are the changes you’ve seen?

DM: Romance continues to have more market share of fiction books sold than any other genre. I don’t think Romance is going away any time soon. But the pendulum continues to swing as to which sub-genres are popular. A few years ago, erotic romance was the big thing. Now, it sells well but not as strong as it once was. LGBTQ romance is growing. I think there’s a big push right now for more bi-racial and more diverse romances. So the sub-genres are expanding to reach new markets and it’s all good.

I think the big change, though, is the tremendous increase in ebook romance. Some have suggested that romance readers like to hide what they are reading. I think it’s more about being able to have so many romances at your fingertips. Plus, so many brick and mortar bookstores have closed that in rural areas, the only way a reader can find new books is to buy them online. Formerly traditionally published authors are going independent and making big money at it. I see that continuing to grow. There’s tremendous opportunity in romance right now, but it requires hard work and something more than writing skills. You need business skills and marketing skills as well.

WHB: Do you ever think back to your first book and wish you’d done something differently?

DM: My first published book was an author’s dream. I wouldn’t change a thing. However, I would have changed a whole lot of things about my second book. 🙂

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t think my first book—a straight historical romance—would ever sell. I didn’t know why, but obviously, I wasn’t doing something right, so I decided that I might be better off as a paranormal author. I love paranormal books. I had an idea to set a story about a heroine with a supernatural power in my Victorian world. After all, I’d done all kinds of research for my Victorian striptease. I didn’t want to waste that. So I wrote a book about a woman who turns invisible in moonlight. She can’t help it, it just happens. She’s a little bit of a thief so if your husband is so foolish as to gamble away your jewelry, my heroine will get it back, but there has to be a full moon and she has to be naked. I loved this book and it was practically writing itself—then I sold my Victorian striptease on a three-book contract. The other two books had to be historical, but that was the only condition. My new agent turned the partial of my invisible heroine book and Berkley sent back a check. That was to be my second book.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have set that book aside and written a sequel to Mrs. Brimley. The invisible heroine story was a great book. It won an award for Historical Love and Laughter from Romantic Times magazine. But historical readers aren’t particularly fond of “woo-woo” in their historicals. Plus, my publisher gave me a really crappy cover for that book. The cover made it look like a sweet romance, and it wasn’t. The cover made it look like a contemporary romance, and it wasn’t. The book was a big flop and it shouldn’t have been.

I would have been better off to market strictly straight historicals, but no one told me that doing a paranormal historical would cause me to lose readers. I’ve learned that it’s important to build your reader base in one sub-genre before jumping to another. I’ve written four more straight historicals (and working on number five). I’ve released a contemporary novella that is based on my historical paranormal this year (2017). I did that independently and am hoping that novella will reintroduce that earlier book (with a much better cover). It’s really hard to have a foot in both historical and paranormal, but as I love paranormal, I’m giving it a go.

WHB: Do you recommend getting an agent?

DM: I think the answer depends on what you want to do. If it’s important to you to see your first book in a bookstore, you’ll probably need an agent. If you plan to write young adult or mystery, you should consider getting an agent. If you want to be responsible for just writing and not certain elements of publication, you’ll probably need an agent. An agent will get your work read instead of it languishing in a slush pile. A good agent will negotiate a better deal for your books, than you could by yourself. An agent can run interference between you and your editor when a problem erupts, leaving you free to write.

However, if you plan to publish independently, you don’t really need an agent (you’ll need a good editor). If you plan to sell to Harlequin, it’s possible without an agent (but I’d recommend one). It’s said that it’s harder to sign an agent than an editor. It’s also said that no agent is better than a bad agent. They can really screw up your career. So think about what you want to do. Do your research into agencies and agents and go from there. Only you can know what’s best for you.

Good Luck!


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If you’re looking for a friendly environment with good food in which to share your writing for some gentle, constructive criticism, the Writing Workshop Workshop is for you! We meet at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month at Allyn’s Cafe in historic Columbia-Tusculum. Bring seven minutes’ worth of reading to share, $5 for the kitty — or more if you plan to eat or drink. We meet in the secret back room. I hope to see you there!


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Looking for a gift for a loved one this holiday season? I’d like to make a few recommendations. You might notice a theme here. OK, I’ll make a full disclosure: the following are books I edited.

Want your mind to be entertained with some food for thought while your stomach is digesting its own food? Then take a look at Benjamin Gorman’s The Sum of Our Gods.

Here’s the description from the author: Joe has been cursed. He musSum of Our Godst meet with Yahweh, the Creator, once a week for coffee and listen to God complain. Yahweh is a crotchety old deity with a pantheon of family problems. His wife, Frigga, has basically stopped talking to Him, except to nag Him about retiring. His son, Jesus, suffers from crippling depression. Oh, and Jesus’ estranged wife is planning a terrorist attack to start a holy war. God is fed up with all the drama. He’s perfectly tired and infinitely irritable. Though God doesn’t seem to care about human problems, Joe’s little, mortal life isn’t perfect, either. In fact, it’s a comedy as black as God’s coffee.

My two cents: The Sum of Our Gods, Ben Gorman’s first published novel, just blew my socks off in a quirky way. Ben’s paternal grandparents are Catholic and Jewish; their son — Ben’s father, is a Presbyterian minister — as is Ben’s mother. Ben, himself, holds a degree in philosophy, is married to a Quaker, teaches creative writing and calls himself agnostic. How could he not help but write a brilliant novel full of the gods wrestling with their demons and each other? Yes, godS. His working title for the book was “And Lo, God Took His Coffee Black” (in case you wondered.) This is a fantastic debut novel, and I can’t wait for Ben’s second!

If you don’t want to think that hard, or if nonfiction is more what you’re looking for, try Paige Adams Strickland’s Akin to the Truth. Her memoir would be of interest to people in the adoption triad or anyone who grew up in the Cincinnati area in the 1960s and 70s. Akin to the Truth

From the author: In 1961 Paige was put up for adoption, a more taboo and secretive topic than it is today. Paige’s adoptive family chose not to focus on the adoption, but instead function as a regular family with natural children. However, being adopted made her feel vulnerable and unreal. She longed to know more about her true self. In Akin to the Truth: A Memoir of Adoption and Identity, Paige tells stories from the perspective of a child and adolescent, growing up with a closely guarded secret. Through vignettes, Paige relates feelings about her adoption to forming and maintaining relationships, caring for pets, moving to new houses and neighborhoods, losing loved ones and entering young adulthood.  Her need for acceptance is juxtaposed with her adoptive father’s increasingly erratic behavior. This is a tale of family joys and hardships, friendships, falling in love and the need to belong. It is set in the era of free love, social unrest and unexpected change during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

From me: Throughout Paige’s childhood, she struggled with feelings of loss, establishing her identity, and tiptoeing through an awkward relationship with her father. Knowing that she was adopted heightened these challenges and added another: finding her birth family. In this entertaining memoir, Paige recounts how she faced her “demons,” and how she learned that she was not alone.

Spreading our interest geographically and chronologically brings us to another memoir, Over My Shoulder: 1931–1945, by the distinguished Ewin Gaby. Over My Shoulder

About the book: History books generally avoid the details of human life. They tell of what happened at a time, but not how it affected those living through that time. The depression of the 1930’s and the war of the early 1940’s changed the world, and history books provide great detail as to the causes and of the changes brought about. Still, how families handled these challenges cannot be told in a book of history, because each family had its own manner of living through these significant historical periods. This book is the story of how a young boy and his family live through the depression of the 30’s and the Second World War. Unlike many others, his father is employed, but that employment causes them to live in 145 towns in his first ten years. When the Second World War begins, they move to New Orleans for the next four years. What a way to grow up!

A few notes from me: Ewin’s book is available in paperback, Kindle or CD version. I recommend the CD highly. With his combination Texas–Louisiana accent, Ewin reads his memoir wonderfully. You can sit back and just listen to a time when kids played outside until it got dark, when mothers and kids pulled together to make the family run while fathers were away during the war, when school kids ran paper drives to support the war effort. Shoot, if your father or grandfather is no longer with you, get the CD and it’s as if you’re together again, hearing stories about the old days, when life was simple.

And a little shameless self-promotion:

My first book, Artists and Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Enslow, 2002) has gone into a  second printing. Now titled Harlem Renaissance Artists and Writers,  it is available in library binding, paperback and e versions.Harlem Renaissance Artists and Writers

In this book I profile ten African Americans who had key contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of creativity that started in New York City in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance lasted for about 20 years and had even international repercussions.

Here’s one review of the original book:

Children’s Literature

Harlem, New York, was the setting for a cultural upsurge in the 1920’s and 1930’s. During those decades a series of Black writers, artists, vocalists, and poets sprang forth and gave voice to the conditions of African-Americans. At a time when racial prejudice was even more overt than in our own age, it took great courage for Black artists to stand up and honestly portray their lot in America. Artists such as Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Josephine Baker all provided a unique expression to what it meant to be a Black person either living in America or with American roots. This artistic movement came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance and that is the subject covered in this collection of short biographies. In this illustrated selection author Wendy Hart Beckman provides encapsulated biographies of ten artists who participated in the Harlem Renaissance. In each instance Ms. Beckman provides a careful outline of the artist’s background, development, contributions, and later life. This is a good reference tool for readers with an interest in African-American history or specifically Black artists of this era. The Harlem Renaissance was a significant movement in American culture and Ms. Beckman does well to offer readers a summary of some of the leading lights of that period.


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Our next Writing Workshop Workshop is on Sunday, June 30, at Olive’s on Ludlow in Clifton’s old gaslight district in Cincinnati, Ohio. We officially gather at 2 p.m., but if you want to take advantage of Olive’s breakfast buffet, get there by 1:30! We need to be done by 5 p.m., so the first 10 people to get there and sign up will get to read.

The group is a great mix of people in many genres and subgenres: memoir, fiction, poetry, nonfiction. If you’re a newbie, you’re more than welcome to just attend and soak up the atmosphere, if you like. Or if you want to read, bring seven minutes’ worth of reading and $5 for the kitty (meow). Bring more money if you intend to eat. 🙂


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Today I’ll be talking with the Sisters in Crime of Columbus, Ohio (SiCCO). Don’t you just love that acronym?

We’re going to talk about how to get your writing in the best shape for submitting it to editors and agents (and contests, too!). I read some great stories and can’t wait to meet the authors. Some of the things we’ll be discussing are manuscript format, action verbs, punctuation and style guides.

For example, did you know that you’re supposed to put only one space at the end of a sentence and after a colon? Do you know when that standard changed? In the mid-1980s. Want to know why? Well, you’ll have to invite me to talk to your group to find out!


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Friday, July 20, at 7 p.m., at the Wild Fig Bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky, I’ll be reading from my unpublished novel. I’ve been working on it for about 20 years and it is just about done. If you come, you’ll be the first people outside my writing group to hear the tale. River City Talent Showcase is the story of Sandy McKinley who, after being laid off, moves to Ohio and joins an all-women’s singing group whose sole purpose is to make its members sing the same, look the same, dress the same, act the same and think the same. In the middle of all this sameness, Sandy struggles with who she is and what her priorities should be. While she’s figuring out who she is, her father (who has Alzheimer’s) is forgetting who she was. (more…)


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Hey folks! This summer I’m going to be giving some talks and conducting workshops around the Tristate, if you’d like to catch me without signing up for a multi-week class. Check out these great opportunities to hear me!



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