If you receive my email newsletter, this is old news to you. If you don’t, you should! Those folks all got entered in a drawing to win an Advance Reader Copy of the book months before it actually comes out. (Don’t worry. There will be more opportunities to enter giveaways. But if you’re on my newsletter list, you are automatically entered into every giveaway I do.)
ANYWAY, what I really want to tell you is that we have a cover!
AND the book is already available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indiebound, and CBD. Pre-ordering is an excellent way to support a new author. It helps a book gain visibility in an online marketplace of millions of titles. And it shows retailers that there is an audience waiting for your book, which encourages them to take a chance on stocking a book from an unproven author.
When you pre-order, you will not be charged until the book is shipped. It may feel silly ordering a book six months before you can actually read it! But if you know you’re going to check it out anyway, it’s a simple way to lend your support.
Here is what the book is about:
When Detroit Free Press reporter Elizabeth Balsam meets James Rich, his strange request—that she look up a relative she didn’t know she had in order to deliver an old camera and a box of photos—seems like it isn’t worth her time. But when she loses her job after a botched investigation, she suddenly finds herself with nothing but time.
At her great-aunt’s 150-year-old farmhouse, Elizabeth uncovers a series of mysterious items, locked doors, and hidden graves. As she searches for answers to the riddles around her, the remarkable stories of two women who lived in this very house emerge as testaments to love, resilience, and courage in the face of war, racism, and misunderstanding. And as Elizabeth soon discovers, the past is never as past as we might like to think.
Take an emotional journey through time—from the volatile streets of 1960s Detroit to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War—to uncover the past, confront the seeds of hatred, and discover where love goes to hide.
Here’s what a couple bestselling authors have said about it:
“We Hope for Better Things has it all: fabulous storytelling, an emotional impact that lingers long after you turn the last page, and a setting that immerses you. I haven’t read such a powerful, moving story since I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. This book will change how you look at the world we live in. Highly recommended!”—Colleen Coble, USA TODAY bestselling author of the Rock Harbor series and The View From Rainshadow Bay
“A timely exploration of race in America, We Hope for Better Things is an exercise of empathy that will shape many a soul. Erin Bartels navigates this sensitive topic with compassion as she shifts her readers back and forth between past and present, nudging us to examine the secrets we keep, the grudges we hold, and the prejudices we may help create even without intention.”—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials
I can’t thank you enough for your support!
Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oates. Neil Gaiman. Amy Tan. Jhumpa Lahiri. J. K. Rowling. Truman Capote. Vladimir Nabakov.
What do all of these people have in common? They write/wrote their works longhand, with paper and pen or pencil, before typing them up on either typewriter or computer.
There are several reasons to eschew the computer when writing a novel. There are no online distractions or rabbit trails. It is easier to write forward rather than getting stuck in an endless and premature editing cycle. You don’t have to make sure you’re seated by an outlet. Paper and pen are more portable and are not a pain in the TSA screening line. It’s far easier to write outside where the sun might completely obscure a laptop screen. And we know that looking at a screen all day is not good for our eyesight or our sleep cycles.
Recently I read an article about how taking notes longhand improves recall in students (this despite the push to get laptops in schools). I had a laptop in college and I never brought it to class. I didn’t need a study to tell me that physically writing notes on paper helped me remember what I was learning. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone, baby.
I enjoy writing on paper. I have been journaling for about a year and a half in an unlined notebook. I always write my poetry longhand, scratching out verses and changing words and drawing lines on the page before typing them up. But when it comes to fiction, I really haven’t tried it.
Some people can’t imagine writing a novel that way because they write scenes out of order and it is easier to manipulate the document on the screen than it would be on paper. I always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and writing straight through to the end, though I do sometimes go back while drafting and edit what I’ve already written. In revision, I often add entire new scenes earlier in the story, but that could easily be done in the first typewritten draft.
Anyway, this past weekend I got it in my head to try it with whatever I’m writing next. It will mean I won’t be watching word counts rack up (at least, not until I type the second draft) but I have to wonder if I might benefit from it.
Sunday evening I bought a pack of four .8 mm black uni-ball pens and a pack of three narrow-ruled moleskin journals, 120 pages each, for a total of 360 pages, pre-divided into a three act structure. The pens are pink on the outside, distinguishing them from all my other many pens, and will be used solely for writing in these notebooks.
Now, I do have terrible handwriting, especially when my mind is on a roll. And there may be times when my handwriting cannot keep up with my thoughts like my typing fingers would. But I imagine there will be fewer typos (fast typing means fumble fingers sometimes for me) and I won’t feel the need to go back and correct the ones that do occur because I know I will get them in the second, typed draft.
One benefit I can count on is this — because I won’t want to “mess up” these notebooks, I won’t actually start writing the next story until I’ve done a lot of preliminary work with character arcs and plotting and feel fairly confident that I know the story I’m telling before I put pen to paper.
I’ll be sure to let you know how the experiment pans out.
I don’t typically write with music on in the background, and if I do, it is nearly always music without words. And I don’t typically match music up with what I’m currently writing, unlike my husband (also a writer) who tends to develop playlists to get himself in the right head space when coming back to the work after a time away.
But I have found that, in writing the first draft of my current WIP, I have been listening to the same few songs over and over again in the car when I’m not writing. It made me wonder if perhaps I had found myself a soundtrack for this novel. But two or three songs do not a soundtrack make. So I decided to go searching for other songs I felt fit the mood or themes of what I’ve been working on.
Lo and behold, it turns out that I easily identified more than twenty songs from my three favorite artists (Brandi Carlile, Indigo Girls, and Norah Jones) that put me in the right head space or otherwise inspire me for this particular novel (and if you checked out my husband’s current novel-writing playlist, you will see they are very different).
Some of these songs I’ve been listening to for over fifteen years. It’s possible that some of the themes I’m bringing out in my current work were partially inspired by these talented musicians when I was in my teens. Certainly the issues and themes I am dealing with in this book have been plaguing me since grade school, and perhaps one reason I gravitate toward music with poetic lyrics that often keep meaning ambiguous or even obscure. There are many things in this life I am sure of — but there are also things I just don’t have pinned down.
I already owned all of these songs on CD (because I’m NOT a millennial, no matter what my husband keeps saying to irritate me — no offense, millennials out there, I just don’t identify with you — that’s a whole other post, I guess…). And what do Gen Xers do when they want to listen to a certain combination of songs? They make a mix tape, of course. Why is this better than just making a playlist on your iPod? Because the order of the songs matters and you don’t want to shuffle it around.
Making mix tapes require a fair amount of thought. Once you’ve identified the songs you want on your mix tape, you have to arrange them so that the tempos are varied and the intensity ebbs and flows in the right way. It’s a bit like plotting out a novel. You don’t want to have all your excitement at the beginning and just let the last half fizzle out into nothing (see every K. T. Tunstall album). You want to hit the right mood notes at the right times.
So here’s my playlist for The Girl Who Could Breathe Underwater, beginning with the song I just can’t stop listening to…and ending with the other one I can’t stop listening to.
1. Heroes and Songs – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
2. Mystery – Indigo Girls (from Swamp Ophelia, 1994)
3. Hand Me Downs – Indigo Girls (from Nomads, Indians, Saints, 1990)
4. Happy – Brandi Carlile (from Brandi Carlile, 2005)
5. The Things I Regret – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
6. Deconstruction – Indigo Girls (from Become You, 2002)
7. Not My Friend – Norah Jones (from Not Too Late, 2007)
8. I’ll Change – Indigo Girls (from Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, 2009)
9. You and Me of the 10,000 Wars – Indigo Girls (from Nomads, Indians, Saints, 1990)
10. Save Part of Yourself – Brandi Carlile (from Bear Creek, 2012)
11. Turpentine – Brandi Carlile (from The Story, 2007)
12. Everything in Its Own Time – Indigo Girls (from Shaming of the Sun, 1997)
13. Toes – Norah Jones (from Feels Like Home, 2004)
14. I Will – Brandi Carlile (from Give Up the Ghost, 2009)
15. The Eye – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
16. All the Way – Indigo Girls (from Despite Our Differences, 2006)
17. The Sun Doesn’t Like You – Norah Jones (from Not Too Late, 2007)
18. Touching the Ground – Brandi Carlile (from Give Up the Ghost, 2009)
19. Lay My Head Down – Indigo Girls (from Despite Our Differences, 2006)
20. Downpour – Brandi Carlile (from The Story, 2007)
21. Don’t Miss You At All – Norah Jones (from Feels Like Home, 2004)
22. Wilder (We’re Chained) – Brandi Carlile (from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, 2015)
MSU students are flowing back into the city. My son went back to school today. We are falling back into routine. Earlier nights, earlier mornings, tighter schedules. And I’m okay with that. Summer has always overstayed its welcome in my life, and, as every writer (or anyone who works from home) knows, summer is hard on output.
Back in June, I finally got myself from 40,000 to 50,000 words in my newest novel manuscript. Each paragraph was a hard-fought victory over summer distraction, including having my son home for the summer (no day care) for the first time whilst also continuing to work full time. In July, I don’t think I wrote much of anything. I was busily working ahead in anticipation of camp and vacation, entertaining dear friends at our house, editing someone else’s novel, and then gone for two weeks, during which time I was surrounded by people and working fairly diligently on actually getting a tan.
In August, it was (intensely) back to work writing pages and pages of catalog copy for the Summer 2017 list. I began to think I’d been quite foolish to set a goal for myself of finishing the first draft of this novel before my WFWA writing retreat in late September. My yard and house had atrophied — badly — over the past two months of busyness. We’d been eating out most meals because no one had the time or energy to grocery shop or cook. The weight I’d lost in June by diligently tracking what I ate started creeping back on. And as an introvert used to working in the house alone for much of the day had about reached my limit of days-strung-together-without-a-decent-chunk-of-solitude-thrown-in-there.
Enter Guys’ Week.
My husband and my son had one glorious week of fun planned out for the end of summer, which included lots of time out of the house and two overnight trips. During Guys’ Week, they went to zoos and museums and the LEGO store. They rode carousels, water slides, and elevated trains. They ate way too many coney dogs and made it through a tornado. They drank $6 slurpees and stayed on the 50th floor of the Renaissance Center.
Me? I wrote 20,000 words. In one week.
I could have spent my non-work time that week cleaning the house, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, and all the other stuff that needed to get done. But I chose instead to focus on writing.
When he’s an adult, I’m sure my son will have memories of a very different type of household than the pristinely clean one I grew up in. He may remember that many nights for a while there was a bag or a box on the table rather than serving bowls. Occasionally, this bothers and embarrasses me. But I’m comforted by the thought that he may also remember that his parents pursued their passions every chance they got.
In four weeks, summer will be officially over and I will be in Albuqurque, New Mexico, with ninety other writers, women (and one man) who have become dear friends and fellow sojourners in the realm of writing and publishing. We’re all at different stages of our manuscripts and our careers. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one with a messy house and an empty fridge.
And I’m willing to bet that I’ll have finished my first draft before I step on that plane.
A couple days ago I got over the 40,000 word hump on my newest project. That’s a great feeling. If you’ve ever been involved in a big, multi-stage project, like designing a new garden or renovating a kitchen or building a suspension bridge, you know what it’s like to know what you need to do in the beginning, and know how you want things to turn out in the end, but be just a wee bit fuzzy on how the middle will work out. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy, because probably most of you plan your big projects. Measure once, cut twice, etc. Wait…that’s not right.
But me? I’m not a big planner. Not when it comes to writing and not when it comes to projects. Sure, I’ll start sewing a dress with a pattern, but I usually buy fabric in various lengths without a solid idea of just what I’ll make with it. It always works out. And I’ll start a major garden rearrangement with one solid idea — that one plant will go here — but the rest is just keeping up with the dominoes as they fall. It always works out.
We’re thinking about redoing our sunroom and making it a more masculine room that will serve as a cigar lounge. That will take some doing. It will mean finally installing a railing on the roof, painting the girly wicker furniture with all-weather paint, moving all that up on the flat roof with an outdoor area rug and maybe some plants in the warm weather. It will involve redoing the flooring, painting the walls, installing a good ventilation system, getting new furniture, moving some books around, trading out my natural decorations for some that fit better with the manly, mid-century black leather look. It will be a big project. I can see the beginning and the end…but that middle bit is hazy. Knowing me, we’ll dive in with these vague plans, figure out the muddy middle, and it will all work out.
Writing a novel is more of a mental project than a physical one. Beyond the words and sentences and paragraphs stacking up in your Word document, writing a novel involves going deeper and deeper — into characters and conflicts, into settings and subplots. And into one’s own experience. Even if you’re writing about a world very different than your own, you will be writing about yourself, your thoughts, your struggles, your memories.
In the book I’m writing right now, I’m delving into some deeply confusing and sometimes painful experiences from my own childhood friendships and encounters, and using those things to propel the plot and affect the development of my characters. I’m dredging up the friendships that ended (why?) and the things that happen to us that we’re too young and inexperienced to process. I’m remembering the insecurities and the rugs being pulled out from underfoot. I’m remembering the things I got wrong and the things I didn’t even know were things.
By the middle of the book, with the tension and conflict ratcheting up, I’ve written myself into a place that I must go through, that I can’t put off any longer. I have several options for which way to take the story, to take the characters. There are cop-outs to avoid, there’s melodrama to avoid, there are wrong steps to avoid. Somewhere ahead is the right path for the story. And I know it runs right over a dead body.
Not literally, of course. I’m talking about those incidents you had long gotten over, had put to rest in your mind years ago, but now must dig back up because they were never wholly dead. You buried them alive, hoping, I suppose, that in doing so you’d smother them and all the questions they’d raise in your mind. And now, after 40,000 words, you have to dig them up, examine what’s left of the evidence, and come up with some answers.
It’s a tough place to be. It makes you start searching for people on the internet, looking for clues as to whether what they did or said to you all those years ago have had any effect on their lives. Often you come up with results that can feel incomprehensible but at least positive. Maybe you find that the girl who was so mean to you as a kid is now a sweet-faced fourth grade teacher. Maybe the kid who stole your bike is a now police officer.
Other results might be more troubling. Maybe your friend’s older brother who molested you is now married with two little girls and you wonder, had you said something way back when, if his life would have gone a completely different way. Maybe the friend you unceremoniously dropped when cooler kids came around ODed or committed suicide. And you find yourself wondering if her troubles started with her losing her close friend.
All those little childhood incidents — could they have had lifelong consequences? The little cruelties that were convenient at the time…what unknown repercussions might have been echoing for the past twenty-five years?
The lovely thing about writing fiction is that you can make things more or less consequential as your story demands. You draw upon those experiences, mold them, and let them propel you toward your conclusion. Yes, the writing of a novel in which you draw deeply from your own experience can be emotionally taxing. You might dig up that half-dead body only to find you still cannot understand it any more than you did when you first buried it.
But maybe you’ll finally be able to put it out of its misery and put it back in the ground for good.
And now, I must get back to writing. A hard scene is staring me in the face, daring me to write it. And that’s my only way forward.
I’m not really a baby person. When my husband and I decided to have a child, I’m sure he was looking forward to having a baby. He loves babies. Babies smile when they see him make a goofy face. When I make a face at babies, their reaction often ranges from suspicion to terror. Maybe just as animals can smell fear, babies can tell when you’re feigning interest.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t dislike babies. I just don’t usually give them a second look when I encounter them in restaurants or stores. And it always surprised me when others seemed interested in my baby. Being fairly introverted, I was always a little put off when I went out in public with my own baby boy and found that, for most people, babies are like a magnet. Toting a baby around already makes every task take longer, and when you add nice little old ladies who miss their grandchildren to the mix, that quick run to the store to buy milk can turn into an excursion for which you should have brought snacks. Most of those strangers mean well, though occasionally you get someone who makes some thoughtless, slightly insulting comment.
Beyond just not quite getting it when people fawned over someone else’s baby, I found that having a baby is just plain hard work, physically and emotionally. You don’t quite understand the depth of the physical exhaustion of never sleeping the night through for years at a time until you’ve done it, nor do you realize just how terrible of a person you are without sleep until you’ve gone without for too many nights in a row. Plus, like many new mothers, I experienced some level of post-partum depression which, again, you can’t quite understand until you’ve been there. I felt bad about myself for at least a year, which was an entirely new experience for someone who was self-confident to a fault up until then.
Anyway, all this to say that I didn’t grieve as my baby grew into a toddler who grew into a little boy. Each new skill he learned was a relief: Excellent! Now he can walk without me worrying about him falling over and cracking his head on the coffee table! Great! Now I can eat my own meal because he can eat his! Fabulous! Now he can let the dog out and go get me that pen from across the room!
I like having a kid more than I liked having a baby. Every year gets more fun as my husband and I get to watch our boy grow into a smart, silly little guy who makes jokes that actually make sense and informs me as I’m coming downstairs to make his lunch that he already did it.
And one of the very best things about having a kid is introducing him to all the stuff we liked as kids. Books, movies, TV shows, restaurants, toys, museums, beaches, and even entire cities. When everything you love is new to your child, you get to experience it like the first time again. You get to rediscover the emotional weight of your own childhood over again. And lucky for the both of us, that means good memories because we were blessed with good childhoods.
Zach has been excited to play old video games on the Apple 2C computer he still has (with all the big 5 1/2 inch floppy disks that still work after more than 30 years!) and read his favorite series of books, The Great Brain, with our son. He’s introduced him to Gordon Korman books, Voltron, model rockets, model trains, and Pac Man. Together they’ve built things out of wood and repaired things around the house. I’ve been excited to take the boy out to collect rocks, work in the garden, examine insects, and walk in the woods. We watch nature documentaries together and pick up feathers and press autumn leaves. Recently the boy helped paint a bathroom and decorate for Christmas. He loves to cook with both mom and dad. He thinks the movies his parents watched as kids are just as hilarious as they think they are.
One of the things I’ve been waiting to share with my son is my love for the book Watership Down by Richard Adams. I first saw the animated adaptation when I was about his age. I read the book for the first time soon thereafter and read it at least once a year for the entirety of my childhood and a few times as a college student and an adult. I also listened to an audio book of it many times and watched the film again and again, despite the fact that it leaves so much out. Simply put, I was big fan. But the animated movie is really bloody and the book is quite long, so I’ve been holding off introducing my nightmare-prone seven-year-old to it.
Until this week. I had a hankering to read it again myself. I glanced through and saw that the chapters themselves, while there are many, are fairly short. I knew I’d have lots of terms, both in English and in the rabbits’ own language, to explain. I knew the very British style and sentence structure might take some getting used to for him (I’m sure I learned more about language and expanded my own vocabulary immensely just from my repeated readings of this one book). But ready or not, I wanted to get him as hooked as I was.
I gave him a general idea of the content — an adventure story of a group of rabbits that must leave their warren to find a new home, encountering many dangers along the way — and explained that the story could be violent at times.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m okay with violence.”
[Pause for mother to be slightly concerned and mentally review all the shows he watches that might be considered violent…Realize it’s all comic-book violence with no blood and no death shown on screen…Feel a little better…Realize that Watership Down may be the most real violence he’s encountered thus far in his life…Remember that he and his father are reading through Judges right now and feel much better about it because this is just rabbits, not people, and it didn’t actually happen…]
See, these are the kinds of taxing want-to-do-things-right-and-not-mess-up-my-kid-for-life thoughts one has as the parent of a seven-year-old.
At any rate, we read the first three chapters last night. And just as I had been as a child who loved to imagine I was various animals, the boy was hooked and has already identified with one of the rabbits: Blackberry. At this point in the story, the reader knows almost nothing about him beyond the fact that he has black-tipped ears. We find out later that he is the most clever rabbit in the group. But it only took one or two sentences featuring him for my son to declare, “I’m Blackberry.”
“You know,” I said, “when I was a kid, Blackberry was my favorite too.”
I put down the book and left the room to get my guitar for his bedtime songs (three every night). When I returned, he was a rabbit. Just as I had once been. And I can remember how it felt to be a rabbit. Timid and nervous and wiggly. Then powerful and swift.
And always a little magical.
Almost four months ago to the day, I wrote this post about my rather unsatisfying writing vacation at Gun Lake, where I had hoped to finish a good first draft of my current WIP, but only succeeded in getting lots of words down on the page that I knew I’d have to fix later. I’ve been picking away at it on and off since then, adding layers and altering plot lines and deepening characters. And I am happy to be able to say that it is now ready for my first beta readers’ critiques. It feels so good to not only have it finished, but to be happy with it. I’m not truly done, of course. Once I get feedback from a few readers I’ll have plenty to edit. But the first big hurdle — writing the dang thing — has been cleared.
In reaching The End, there is a loosening of something that had been wound tight in my chest, a liberating sensation that I am now free to work on a new story, one that has been forming in my mind for weeks, like a flock of birds ahead of winter’s snows. After all, The End is really just the beginning of something new…
The scales have tipped, the tumblers in the lock have fallen into place, the dominoes are all lined up and the finger is making contact with the very first one.
What am I talking about? My next novel.
Next novel? But you haven’t even published your first one. Yes, that’s true. But writers write. And this next one, which I hope will be my second to be published (eventually), has been brewing in my mind since the day after I typed “The End” at the bottom of my last manuscript. And on Thursday night, a key plot element was birthed in my mind like a baby star and I am just about ready to really start writing.
Since early March, I have been feeding my mind a steady diet of classic literature in preparation for writing this next novel, and a few weeks ago I finally picked up this beautiful book, a gift last Christmas…
I’m smitten anew and excited to say that Emily Dickinson’s life, spirit, and poetry will get a major nod in the novel. In fact, the backbone of the story is constructed of books and poems, the kind that stay with us throughout our lives and to which we return again and again. It is precisely the kind of story the English major in me can hardly believe she will be privileged to write–one that celebrates our vast body of literature in English, makes a case for the singular importance of the printed book, and traces how our identities are wrapped up in what we read at formative points in our lives.
I’m so excited to get started, I don’t know that I will be able to wait until NaNoWriMo, which I had been thinking of attempting for the third time. And if I cheat, I simply could not wear a t-shirt like this with any sense of integrity…
And this is kind of how I feel about that shirt…