Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New December Release: Vet Tech Tales - Volume 1

A coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever had a pet or a dream.

An Amazon exclusive. Special introductory price: 99c.

Armed with the belief that simply loving animals would be enough to see her through high school, college, and eventually into veterinary medicine, Phoenix is in for some rude surprises as she navigates her way toward a career working with animals in “The Early Years,” the first installment of her VET TECH TALES series.

From the dying finch found miraculously “resurrected” in a pet store to the diabetic poodle that gives its elderly owner a purpose in life to an embarrassing incident with a coyote, these engaging tales reinforce how the animals we meet teach us the greatest lessons about what it means to be human.

17 Tales - 25,000 words – about 100 pages

Vet Tech Tales: The Early Years is available in English in all of Amazon's Kindle stores:
Amazon.com - 99c
UK - 86p
Germany - ,99e
Spain - ,99e
France - ,99e
             Look for
Volume 2,
“On The Job,”
in Spring 2012.

About the Author

In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. Today, she lives on a 27-acre farm, Rainbow's End, with a small herd of ponies and miniature horses; flocks of chickens, ducks and guineas; a rescued iguana; a mother goat and her son who strayed up; and several dogs and cats who likewise found their way onto the farm and into her heart.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Heidi's Hero

We all have preconceived notions of how a real-life hero should act, don't we? But do our expectations fit the reality? Is there a point where real-life heroes and storybook heroes simply can't connect?

"Heidi's Hero" is an excerpt from the upcoming Vet Tech Tales ebook, and first appeared on the Confessions of an Animal Junkie blog.

Getting called into the exam room was still a treat, and late into my first paid day Dr. Norris asked me in to help with Heidi, a nervous miniature schnauzer. The immaculately groomed dog eyed me warily as she paced back and forth at the end of her leash.
The petite woman at the handle end of the leash was as perfectly groomed as the dog, from the top of her freshly permed hair to the buffed and pink-polished toes peeping from the tips of her white sandals.
Towering beside her at an easy 6’4” stood the woman’s ruggedly tanned husband dressed in camouflage fatigues with the last name Watson stitched across the breast pocket. His burled body and close-cropped hair suggested he’d seen combat duty in Vietnam. An ex-marine, if I had to guess.
With a single, fluid motion Tom Watson swept the little schnauzer off the floor and deposited her on the exam counter. His large hands circled her body in a secure embrace. Heidi didn’t stop trembling but did melt as far as she could into the safety of those familiar hands while Tom’s thumbs massaged her shoulders. After a moment, Heidi relaxed a bit. Who wouldn’t, safe under the protection of a strong, confidant man like Tom? Even I, across the table, felt reassured by his gestures.
Ms. Watson perched herself on the barstool in the corner of the cramped room, apparently happy to let Tom handle things.
“Just vaccinations and a heartworm check today?” Dr. Norris asked as he glanced at the chart that indicated Heidi was a generally healthy 3-year-old pup here for her annual visit.
“Yep, no problems at all with our little girl, Doc.” Tom’s deep yet gentle voice echoed the promised security of his hands.
“Well, let’s just have a quick look at her then, shall we, and get you on your way.”
That was my cue to slide in next to Heidi and take over holding her. Nervous dogs could be fear biters, especially if they felt their beloved owner was being threatened too. I slid my small hands under the warmth of Tom’s large ones and, reluctantly, he released her and stepped back to give the vet room to work.
As Dr. Norris performed a quick physical, I kept firm but gentle control of Heidi, loosely circling her muzzle and lifting her head while Norris looked into her ears and eyes and lifted her lips to check her teeth and gums, then simply holding her head and murmuring assurances to her while he checked out the rest of her. When he reached for the syringes to vaccinate her, I gripped her muzzle again and pulled her snugly to me.
“What a good girl!” I praised her for only flinching a little when first one needle then the second bit into her.
From her perch in the corner, Ms. Watson curved her perfectly painted lips into a smile, happy her little girl was behaving so well. Tom Watson, meanwhile, had taken a step further back toward the wall. With our attention on Heidi, no one noticed that Tom’s tan was no longer quite so rugged.
“Just a little blood for the heartworm check and we’ll be done,” Dr. Norris told the room in general.
I switched my grip to tuck Heidi in close to my side with my left arm and circled her muzzle again with my hand. I snaked my right thumb across the top of her foreleg to hold off the vein there and curved my fingers behind her elbow, extending her leg for Dr. Norris to take the blood sample.
Heidi was a champion, holding perfectly still save for the involuntary nervous quiver that thrilled through her little body every few seconds.
The same, though, couldn’t be said for Tom. At the first draw of blood, I saw a blur of movement from the corner of my eye and heard a not-so-perfect gasp from Ms. Watson.
The battle-hardened ex-marine sagged to the floor in a slow-motion faint.
“Joan!” Dr. Norris bellowed the name to be sure our receptionist heard him through the walls of the exam room as he hurried to Tom’s side. The main concern, of course, was how hard Tom’s head had hit the cold tiles.
Ms. Watson abandoned the stool and stood in the corner, mascaraed eyes wide and perfectly manicured hands fluttering in the air.
I held on to Heidi, whose little paws scrabbled futilely against the laminated tabletop. She yipped her concern over the scritching sound of her nails and I wondered how she could ever be convinced to walk into a vet clinic again after this.
The exam room door opened and Joan popped her head in, assessed the situation, hurried off and returned a moment later with something I’d only read about in classic literature: smelling salts.
She passed the bottle under the ex-marine’s nose a couple of times as he blinked his way to consciousness. Joan smiled in his field of view. “Welcome back.”
He touched his fingertips to the side of his head and sat up.
“You’ll have a bruise and a pretty good-sized knot there for a while,” Norris told him. “Joan, have Kathy wrap up some ice for him. Tom, why don’t you go sit out in the waiting room for a bit – at least till you’re back to feeling normal.”
There was nothing wrong with the words Dr. Norris used. Objective and modulated, they were precisely the words expected from a professional. Still, I could feel an undercurrent of machismo in the room. There was a subtle power play at work here between the short, stocky vet standing over the downed soldier, and the tall, extraordinarily fit ex-Marine looking up at him. Maybe there was a twinkle of victory in Norris’ eyes or a twitch of his lips as he fought the urge to gloat.
In any case, Tom, his tan having given way completely to a crimson blush, brushed off the ministrations. Without a word, and certainly without meeting anyone else’s eye, Tom gathered his dignity, squared his shoulders and marched past the handful of owners in the waiting room, avoiding the sympathetic glances thrown his way as he headed for the seclusion of his car, leaving Ms. Watson to deal with Heidi and the bill.
There was definitely a satisfied air about Norris as he bustled around, running the heartworm test, counting out preventative, and jotting down the particulars of the visit on Heidi’s chart.
Ms. Watson seemed at a loss, having only the presence of mind to take Heidi’s leash when I offered it to her and moving mechanically to the reception desk to pay her bill after Norris escorted her to the exam room door. Poor little Heidi seemed an almost-forgotten accoutrement.
What struck me most about the incident was Tom’s embarrassment – his obvious fear that fainting made him less of a man in everyone’s judgment. He wasn’t necessarily wrong about that, but those who judged him that way, in my opinion, were the ones who had the complete wrong of it.
Tom didn’t faint because he was squeamish and couldn’t handle the sight of blood. No doubt he’d seen plenty of his own and that of his buddies during his military career. I’m convinced he fainted because the intensity of emotion – love and concern – that he felt for Heidi was simply too overwhelming; he just didn’t have a socially accepted mechanism for displaying how her obvious distress affected him. His body shut down rather than deal with it.
Plus, I suspect he was one of those tough guys who spend their lives rescuing folk out of ditches and from burning buildings and then turn to mush whenever they’re around children and animals. If anything, that degree of empathy was a trait that should have endeared him to those closest to him, though I doubted Dr. Norris could ever understand that whatever victory he thought he’d gained here was nothing more than a hollow coup.
Sometimes real-life romance heroes pop up in the most unlikely places and in the most unexpected ways.
I hoped plastic, perfect Ms. Watson knew just how lucky she was to be married to a man who could love so deeply. I have no doubt Heidi realized her luck, and that once in the car she snuggled in close to her hero, feeling safe and protected once again.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Book of the Week Award Winner - Thanks to You!

Jennifer Blake's reissued Silver-Tongued Devil is this week's winner of the Long and Short Romance Review's Book of the Week award!

The award is especially significant because it means not only did the reviewer give the read a 5 out of 5 rating, but the blog readers themselves voted for the book and review to receive the honor.

You can read the quite lovely review here.

The new trade paperback edition will be released December 6, but you can preorder it now for 21% OFF at     Amazonor     BN

An ebook version is also available at     Amazonor     BN

Happy reading!

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Traveling Writer

Writers can write anywhere; it’s not only a maxim, but a definite benefit of the craft. Trouble is, we’re expected to take our work, or the tools for it, everywhere we go. On returning from a recent three-week getaway, I realized I’d transported more equipment to work with than clothes to wear. What does that say about me? But it also occurred to me that packing for an extended trip involves a fair amount of organization if you're to have what you need. Aha, fodder for a blog post! So here’s a rundown of what I normally take:

Travel journal:
I like to keep a record of where I went, when, and what I did on certain days. It comes in handy later, when people are scratching their heads, wondering what year we went where. It’s also great for settling arguments!

Research books or materials:
You may not need this item. I always do—especially if I don’t have it with me.

Printed manuscript pages, as needed:
Proofreading on the printed page is far more accurate than proofreading on a computer screen. Why? The screen doesn’t display as much text as a page, so you miss repeated words and phrases. Also, its glare often obscures missed commas or periods. In addition, the printed page is more like printed text so sentences read differently, are perceived differently by the brain. All right, I have no proof of the last, but it seems that way to me.

Notepad—actual, not electronic:
No matter how integrated with the digital world you may be, there will always be times when a low-tech paper-and-pen combo is faster and more convenient than a high-tech gadget.

Pens in your favorite brand and style:
Pens are illusive things. No matter how many I drop into my purse or stand in the pewter cup on my desk, there’s never one available when I need it. I buy them by the box, and, still, the only thing I can find to write with on the spur of the moment is one of those cheap pens everyone lifts from hotel rooms. Do the best you can.

So you may look like a road warrior—you still need some means of keeping all your paraphernalia together. I have a leather hard-sided briefcase, a leather soft-sided one, two rip-stop nylon soft-sided ones, and a cheap one with wheels and a handle that I bought at Wal-Mart. Guess which one I use.

Laptop, Notebook computer, or tablet:
This is an indispensible item, even if you’re absolutely positive you won’t be writing anything longer than research notes, character sketches or scene notes. Leave it behind, and I guarantee the complete plot for the opus of the century will arrive full-blown in your mind while you’re somewhere over the Atlantic or in the middle of Texas.

Padded cover(s) for your precious electronics:
Nothing is sadder than an iPad with a cracked screen from being dropped on a hard surface. I’ve seen it. It’s not pretty.

Chargers for  electronics:
Between the two of us, my husband and I had nine different chargers with us on this last trip—phone (x2), laptop (x2), camera, eReader, iPad, iPod, and GPS. Too wired, yes. But guard these with your life, for you can do nothing without them. It’s a good idea to buy a carrying bag of some kind that’s dedicated to nothing but chargers. I also like to put each charger in a separate zip-type plastic bag and label it. No, I’m not compulsive; it just annoys me to have to scrabble through a bunch of wires to find what I want.

External hard drive or thumb drive with appropriate stored files:
Yeah, yeah, I know you’re connected to the cloud, but what if there’s something between you and it? It can happen in the Wild West where canyon walls and mountain tops often block signals. Bad weather can intervene anywhere. Better safe than sorry.

Paperclips or bulldog clips:
I hate having to reorganize papers when a simple paperclip would have saved the time and irritation. How colorful or fancy these may be is up to you. Have fun; writing has become way too serious these days.

Pre-glued Notes
Sometimes, it’s useful to attach your handwritten note to the MS page it’s meant to elucidate. It just is, trust me. And an idea per page, and the pages in a neat little pile, is… Fine. Maybe I am compulsive. But organization is still a good thing.

Since publishing her first book at age twenty-seven, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jennifer Blake has gone on to write over sixty-five historical and contemporary novels in multiple genres.  She brings the story-telling power and seductive passion of the South to her stories, reflecting her eighth-generation Louisiana heritage.  When not traveling, Jennifer lives with her husband in northern Louisiana.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Promise-Keeper

This post was originally published July 9, 2010 - from Phoenix Sullivan's Confessions of an Animal Junkie blog.

(I live on a small farm in North Texas with a handful of horses, a couple of goats, a flock of chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and an iguana. I blog about life on a farm and the lessons we learn from the animals around us. I'll be collecting some of my Vet Tech Tales from the blog into a series of ebooks that will start releasing next month.) 

While I was at a horse breeder's two summers ago, scoping out her pen of throw-aways looking for a playmate for my 4-month-old colt, I noticed a roan filly with a pretty trot and a dash of flash. She was half Shetland pony and half Miniature horse, registered as both. At 6 months, she was the oldest, and biggest, foal in the pen. She was going to be big enough that kids could ride, so I wasn't concerned about her being able to find a home, and I wanted a horse that would be hard to place. My dad, still spry at 80, was talking with the breeder's husband and I noticed he kept looking the filly's way. When I told him I was buying a thin little colt instead and that the breeder would deliver him in a couple of days, Dad seemed happy enough.

The next day my dad and I were sitting on my porch and he asked me why I had chosen the colt I did over, say, the big, pretty filly we'd seen. It was clear he'd been smitten. I made a quick and easy decision.

"There's no reason I can't get two horses instead of just one," I told him.

"How much do they want for her?" That was Dad, ever practical.

I shrugged. I saw how much he wanted the horse so, within reason, the price didn't really matter. "I'll find out if she's still available."

She was, and the breeder would be only too happy to bring her out along with the other colt the next day.

When I told my dad everything was arranged, he shook his head and said, "I want to be the one to buy her."

I didn't understand. "Why? You'll get to see her all the time anyway."

"I want to buy her for you. Your mother and I promised a long time ago that we'd get you a horse. So I want to give you that horse now."

I flashed back to a Christmas 41 years earlier when my big present had been a promise: a handwritten certificate entitling me to "one horse, one saddle and one saddle blanket." I would have to wait a little, though, till the time was right and we had the money to get the horse. I hung on to that certificate with all the faith an 8-year-old has in the world. I memorized it. Kept it in a safe and treasured place. Dreamed about it. And waited.

A year passed and we moved, then a year later moved again. When it looked like we would be in one place more than a year and I dared to start looking at livestock and boarding facilities in the classifieds, Dad was laid off and there was no money for a horse. He eventually found a good job, but it took a handful of years to recover financially and another couple before he and Mom felt comfortable enough to spend beyond the essentials. By then I had graduated. And by the time I moved out on my own at 17, I had put my childish hope away.

I folded the certificate along with its empty promise and threw it into the trash.

I may have resigned myself to letting it go, but my dad had never forgotten. And now, 41 years after he'd made that promise, he was ready to make good on it.

He wanted to name the big-boned filly Beauty. We compromised on Bella. She's an easy-going girl who loves company and will follow you around like a puppy. She'll even carry the 50-pound feed bags when asked, though it's usually too much trouble trying to keep them balanced, even on her broad pony back. And while not every horse can pull off the style, she looks terrific with a mohawk.

Mostly, though, when I look at Bella, I see my father's abiding love. In her trot I see his fierce determination not to disappoint his daughter, and in her eyes I see his delight at being able to fulfill a nearly forgotten promise made 40 years ago.

I'm glad he died knowing he'd made his little girl's dream finally come true.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chivalry Lives in Texas

(This post by Jennifer Blake first appeared Sept 9, 2010 on the Mira Books site)
During a recent drive from our summer home in Colorado back to Louisiana, my husband and I stopped at a convenience store in Clarendon, Texas. While he was putting diesel in the RV we use for travel, I went inside the store. As I came out again, a woman with a young child was almost at the door, so I held it for the two of them. When she had passed by me and gone inside, I started out again but saw a boy of nine or ten coming who was obviously with the woman. I paused again, waiting for him to enter. He stopped, however, and took the handle of the heavy glass door, holding it open for me. “Go ahead, ma’am,” he said in his polite Texas drawl.
Now I’ve lived all my life in the South where a man holding a door open for a woman is an everyday occurrence. This was different because, first, the boy was so young and, second, he commandeered this small act of kindness instead of accepting it from me. And in those brief seconds that it took for me to smile, say thank you and walk away, I knew several things about this young man: 1) Somewhere in his background was a man who had taught him how to behave toward women, 2) he was a boy who could think on his feet, 3) he was not afraid to take the initiative when he felt he was doing the right thing.
Thinking about this now, as a writer, I’m reminded of the importance of the telling gesture in fiction, that one small action which shows more about a character than reams of narrative. I’m also reminded of how much courtesy, honor and chivalry mean to me as a story-teller, how often these things turns up in my books. It’s a couple of lessons re-learned. Well, okay, the incident is also a story-starter as I begin to picture the kind of man who might bring up a boy like this, and think, hmm, what if the guy was divorced or a widower, and what if….

Since publishing her first book at age 27, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jennifer Blake has gone on to write over 65 historical and contemporary novels in multiple genres. She brings the story-telling power and seductive passion of the South to her stories, reflecting her 8th-generation Louisiana heritage. Jennifer lives with her husband in northern Louisiana.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Editing Out Voice

For those of you who don't know, I was a writer/editor/project manager in the corporate world for 23 years, though toward the end I seemed to be spending far more time managing than doing what I think I do best: writing and editing. I've worked in advertising, marketing and sales, and am fluent in corporate speak. I've also edited newspapers for nonprofits and newsletters for businesses.

Although I played at copyediting, it was never a job I relished doing. Too many grammarians -- especially in the corporate world -- get caught up in the rules and forget about what makes writing effective and memorable: voice.

Since I didn't have the luxury to pick and choose my projects, I worked with text that ran the gamut from techno-babble that made precious little sense to competent copy that read fine but just wasn't that compelling. Unfortunately, I also worked against a corporate mentality that rewards the bland and frowns on anything outside a small range of approved voice.

Two projects stand out most for me where I had to battle for the addition of voice -- one a technical white paper and the other a company newsletter.

In the white paper, which I ghost wrote for an executive, I used an extended metaphor to get across the idea of why business continuity and disaster recovery are critical components of a company's IT strategy. (Stop fidgeting; I promise that's as technical as I'm going to get.) For the metaphor, I chose the asteroid slam that wiped out the ponderous dino beasties and gave the smaller, more agile mammals a chance to thrive. "What's this all about?" was the cry I kept hearing from one reviewer to the next. "This kind of thing just isn't done. Not in this organization! We pride ourselves on being a staid and incomprehensible IT company. Stop making what we do accessible to the general public!"

For a paycheck, I'm willing to compromise -- but only to a point. I argued that the metaphor was the paper's hook, the thing that would make it stand out from all those other white papers every other IT services organization was writing on the subject. We could either be noticed or be assimilated. And if they chose assimilation, someone else was going to have to write the paper. In the end they signed off on it, grumbling all the way. Of the hundreds of white papers the company produced, that one had the longest shelf life and was the one most downloaded and used. In fact, when the original executive resigned a couple of years after it was first published, the one taking his place slapped his name on the paper and kept it alive a few more years.

There weren't any groundbreaking revelations in the paper. In all other respects, it was pretty run-of-the-mill. It was popular because of voice.

In the second example, when a techie guy working at a client site sent in an article about how his team had pulled together and overcome obstacle after obstacle to get a computer network up and running, I knew I had to use it in the company newsletter. Why? The actual details weren't any different from any other team's challenges in putting in a network, but there was such a raw enthusiasm in this guy's writing that it begged to be included.

Corporate speak it was not, though, and that was a problem. I had a choice: rein it in so it was in line with the bland brand or give it its head and let it take others along on its rather wild ride. I chose the latter, which actually presented the greater editing challenge. Preserving unique voice in an unpolished work while making it conform to at least some syntax, structure and punctuation rules is akin to performing delicate surgery. The last thing I wanted to do was kill the brash joy that crashed through so potently.

I published the newsletter. The investment relations manager was outraged. "What if a client sees this? I want all future newsletters to come through me so I can give them a professional edit."

Which, if you know me, didn't sit well at all. "Um, excuse me, I am a professional editor. And if I were a client, I'd be thrilled that someone working on my site had the level of passion this guy obviously has for the work he's doing. Given a choice between this guy and someone just punching the clock and spending his days conjugating verbs correctly, hands down I'd choose this guy -- meaning OUR company -- every time."

What is it about a large corporation that makes people afraid of standing out in some way? Of infusing life and voice into the work it produces? Of wearing passion on its figurative sleeve?

As a result of that article, we had employees with some truly amazing stories tell us they felt they could submit them now because they weren't intimidated; our employee newsletter was now accessible by its intended audience. And yes, the article did fall into the hands of some of our clients, and they expressed hope that future issues would be highlighting similar stories and teams at their companies.

So what does any of this have to do with your fiction writing?

You have a unique voice. Use it -- loudly and well. Don't give in to the pressure of critique groups who try to flatten it or otherwise corrupt it. Have confidence in your voice, nurture it, praise it, reward it.

Your voice is you. Never, ever let anyone edit it -- or you -- out of your work.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Writer's Block

Greetings from the South.

I'm sure everyone has heard of it. Many have had it and some are experiencing it now. Yes, you know what I'm talking about. The dreaded writer's block. Or as I like to call it, writer's panic. That sheer feeling of fear as you stare at the stark white blank page with the little lone cursor blinking rapidly in front of you.


Waiting for you to type something. Anything. But, you can't. Your mind draws a blank and you just stare at the cursor praying the screen has some kind of magic ink that will reveal itself to you. It doesn't.

So, how does one overcome writer's block? By writing, of course. No it might not be your best. It might not even make sense. Chances are it will have to be trashed immediately, but as a wise author once said, "You can't fix a blank page."

Personally, I take that little slogan to heart.

Don't get me wrong. There are days when I stare at the white screen with the little blinking cursor and want to throw in the towel. Nothing seems to fall into place and for the life of me I can't string two sensible sentences together. Instead of surrending to the blinking cursor, I type. And delete. Then type some more. And delete some more. Finally, just when it seems like a lost cause, something happens. A little magical spark of sorts and my characters take over (they really do have a mind of their own, you know) and the scene starts to flesh out. Maybe not perfectly at first, but enough to move forward. So I type while my characters lead and at the end of the day I am no longer facing stark white pages with a lonesome little cursor. I have something to work with. I might not be able to fix a blank page, but I can certainly fix a page full of ideas and promise.

So there you have it. Writer's block defeated once again. Ok. Your turn. Let your fingers tickle the keyboard while your mind releases the magic.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fairy Tales Vs Romance

I saw it again this week: “Romance novels, like fairy tales, lack realism; they make women believe a handsome prince is going to rescue them with promises of happy-ever-after.”

Oh, please!

I loved fairy tales as a girl, but spent not a single second gazing down the road for my prince. It’s my considered opinion that those who use this analogy know fairy tales only from Disney movies, particularly “Cinderella” with its dreamy-eyed heroine singing “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” This makes for a seriously skewed view. And if you really want to set me off, try telling me men and boys have no problem with fiction versus reality in male-oriented stories such as 007’s exploits or “The Sword in the Stone,” while women and girls, poor weak-minded creatures that they are, can’t distinguish between female-oriented fiction and real life!

In fact the basic theme in “Cinderella” is far from being Female Rescue. As in most enduring fiction, it’s actually the battle between good and evil. Gentle, down-trodden Cinderella gains the love of her prince in spite of unreliable miracles and the machinations of her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. “Sleeping Beauty” has the same premise with the addition of a warning against trusting schemers and strangers. “Rumpelstilskin,” with its twisted little man who forces a young woman to spin straw into gold, features a heroine who triumphs through intelligence, plus a caveat about males who profit from female labor. “Beauty and the Beast,” instead of encouraging female attempts to redeem violent, abusive men, as some claim, is about compassion and seeing beneath surface appearances. And its secondary message, as with “The Princess and the Frog,” is that every prince need not be handsome. “Rapunzel” illustrates the essential truth that women can change what happens to them, since the prince-hero is unable to reach the eponymous heroine in her lonely tower until she decides to let down her long hair as a rope. And the list goes on.

My point here is that neither fairy tales nor romance novels lack core realism. Both address serious issues, both reward the good and punish the wicked as they hold out the gift of hope. As romance authors and readers we should ignore critics who use slanted comparisons to belittle our genre—or suggest they take a closer look at their own fantasy and reality.


Since publishing her first book at age 27, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jennifer Blake has gone on to write over 65 historical and contemporary novels in multiple genres. She brings the story-telling power and seductive passion of the South to her stories, reflecting her 8th-generation Louisiana heritage. Jennifer lives with her husband in northern Louisiana.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Art of the Query Letter

This is for the writers out there who have a manuscript -- or will have one soon -- ready to start submitting to agents or publishers. One of the requisites is a query about the project, which is part sales letter and part demonstration of writing ability. For many, writing this single page is far more stressful than writing the entire book.

I recently saw an ad for a class being taught by someone who made the critique blog rounds with their query a couple of years ago. The first version I saw was, shall we say, not very good. The critiquers came through with some really brilliant and considered advice to help improve it.

The query then started popping up on other crit sites, revised for the better each time. By its fifth public version, the query had gone from bland to spectacular. In fact, when version 5.0 appeared on one agent's query critique site, the agent didn't just ask for pages, she demanded them. While THAT agent didn't take on this author, another did. (It's been a few months now and the ms that snagged the agent hasn't sold yet, but they are pressing forward and working on other projects together.)

What's important to this conversation is not the revelation that getting an agent doesn't always translate into a book sale to a publisher (although that's a reality we all need to keep in our back pockets) or that people actually get paid to critique queries, it's that this person put their ego aside and learned from the critiques. Now those early versions were beaten, kicked, shredded, gutted and left a bloody mess. It took courage to subject those attempts to public pummeling -- not once or twice but multiple times. And it took bull-headed determination to get that query to the point where it had agents begging for more.

I have tons of respect for writers so willing to learn.

So, in easily digestible form, here are the takeaways from today's sermon:
  • It generally takes several revisions to get a query to the point it can do its work well.
  • Query writing is a skill that can be learned (some writers will always be better at it than others, just as some people are better at writing brilliant marketing pieces than they are at writing technical documents, but if you have any kind of general writing skill, you can learn to write a good query)
  • You have to be able to filter conflicting advice and choose what works best for your unique style and voice.
  • While feedback is subjective and you might easily ignore advice you only hear once, if several people are piling on over the same issue, realize it's a "you, not them" problem and CHANGE IT.
  • Initial drafts (plural) usually suck.
  • There is no one way to write a query; even the pros in the biz differ on length, ingredients, and spoilers.
  • Listening to conflicting industry advice and trying to cater to every conflicting "rule" out there is a sure way to madness. Pick a style that works for you and do your darnedest to perfect it.
  • The same people you're thinking of paying for advice might well be the same people who learned for free -- the same way you can learn for free.
  • Whether you pay for advice or not, be sure to solicit multiple opinions and not rely on any one person's blessing or evisceration.
  • Even a killer query can't overcome a story that isn't perceived as marketable (go back and read that one again -- it's important).
  • Pay it forward -- once you've learned the skill, pop on the critique boards and help others hone their skills as well.
Phoenix's 5 Stages of Query Writing
Version 1: It might need a little tweaking but it can't be that bad. (Oh, but it is.)

Version 2: Ouch. But OK, I've cleaned up the stuff readers had issues with and it really is better. (Uh-oh, new issues have been introduced.)

Version 3: OK, I am going to meticulously answer every reader's concern and concentrate on exactly that and nothing else because, frankly, I'm getting pretty frustrated over all of this. (Only now, the query has lost its voice and, somewhere, the story's tight plot and style.)

Version 4: Ah, now I see that I can leave out some of those problematic issues completely and the query experience for the reader will actually be improved. Less really IS more. (And it is. Often, V4 is a complete re-envisioning of the query, with a cleaner feel and fewer plot points and characters.)

Version 5: Gah, how could I have misspelled THAT and not seen it until now? (Final grammar check, but it's now ready for submission.)

It's never too early to start writing your query. In fact, writing the query before you even write the book can help keep you focused on the major themes you envision for the story.

One caveat: It may well take 10 or more revisions to get to "Version 5." That's normal. But revising ad infinitum can become a habit or a stonewalling tactic. At some point you need to call it, stop revising and send that puppy out. Because the only query sure to get rejected is the one that doesn't get submitted.

Phoenix Sullivan's short stories have appeared in various pro anthologies and magazines. In the corporate world, Phoenix was a professional writer and editor for 23 years. Before that, she was a registered veterinary technician, working with small animal clinics and wildlife rehab centers. She taps that knowledge in SECTOR C, a near-future medical thriller with a vet heroine, a CDC analyst hero and a pandemic that crosses both species and time.