Cover Reveal: The Words between Us

It’s March, people! March may be the ugliest month of the year in Michigan, but the first day of March is the mental and emotional boost we all need as winter drags on. And one of the great things about this March 1st is that I get to show you the cover of my next book!

Head on over to Women Writers, Women(‘s) Books right now for the cover reveal for The Words between Us, coming to bookstores in September!

Writing Romance as Wish Fulfillment?

My most consistently popular post on this blog is 7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading). Last night I finally watched Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and now I find I must add it to my list.


To me, a movie makes the cut in the same way a book does — if when it ends there’s a little ache in my heart, a little place inside that now feels empty and full at the same time. This was such a film. When I turned off the TV at midnight last night, I found that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes even though the room was dark, I was in bed, and it was certainly time to retire for the night.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s novels or of their film adaptations, you should pop over to Netflix and watch Becoming Jane, either alone or with a sympathetic companion.

I don’t read genre romance and I don’t write genre romance, nor do I aspire to. But I do like romantic elements in book or a film. I have, in the past, viewed the writing of romantic plots or characters as perhaps too common, not quite literary enough. I don’t know why — perhaps simply because the books one reads as an English major (other than Austen and Shakespeare) don’t tend to be terribly romantic.

Perhaps it is also because a lot of category romance in our day is overtly sexual. I’m not interested in stories like that. I am of the mind that sexual tension is far more interesting to read about than sex, and once characters get together, whether by marrying or sleeping with each other, the story is done in my mind. Think about it. Wasn’t The Office far more fun to watch before Jim and Pam got together?

There’s also a stereotype that women who write romantic stories are trying to fill some void in their own lives. But why should that have to be so? Doesn’t everyone want romance? Doesn’t everyone enjoy that lovely, terrible, desperate feeling of being utterly at the mercy of another person’s glances and smiles? Why do otherwise sensible people jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Because we like the feeling of falling. And that’s why we like romantic stories — we get to fall along with the characters.

There is some truth to the notion that writing romance can be wish fulfillment for an author. It was for Jane. And that’s what makes her story so beautifully sad. But it isn’t in every case.

When my husband first read the manuscript for I Hold the Wind he commented that it was a far more romantic story than I’d written before. I hadn’t thought about it, but I had to admit he was right. My initial reaction to this comment was to be a bit defensive. I didn’t write a romance! And then it was to worry that he might be a bit offended, that he might think I’d written something romantic because I was lacking romance. After all, we had been married for more than fifteen years at that point.

Of course both reactions were wrong. I didn’t need to be defensive. I should rather be glad that he thought it was romantic. That means it made the reader have a bit of that feeling, that feeling of falling. Zach likes romantic stories, especially when people get back together after a falling out.

And I didn’t need to worry about the writing being some unconscious wish fulfillment. I was simply following the story and the characters as they developed. I didn’t set out to write a romance — I set out to write a story about the books that stick with us. It became a romantic story naturally, because a guy and a girl were sharing and discussing books, which can be an intimate exercise.

It also became a romantic story because our relationship to the books we love can be like a romance. We fall for books like we fall for people. There are books we will never fully get off our minds, just as there are crushes in our youth (whether on a person we actually knew or a popular musician or actor whose poster we had on our wall) that we’ll always remember, no matter how many years we’ve been happily married. I know I have nothing to fear over Rebecca St. James and Zach knows he has nothing to fear over Donny Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg, maybe). We don’t love those old crushes, forsaking all others. But we’ll never completely shake them. They are part of what makes us us.

Same thing happens with movies and actors. Zach and I have discovered recently that we have some mutual celebrity crushes (Jake Johnson, Chris Pratt, Zooey Deschanel). And because we’ve been watching movies with each other for 22 years, we love many of the same films and TV shows. Sure, we have our own separate flings — I will never understand his attraction to Burn Notice and he will never understand my attraction to Under the Tuscan Sun or The Last Unicorn — but by and large, we fall for the same shows: Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, Gosford Park and The Boondock Saints.

I doubt he would fall for Becoming Jane, though I won’t tell you why. Maybe that film is just my little affair. But I do know this: I shan’t shy away from the romantic in my writing if that is where a story wants to go. Because we all like the feeling of falling, our characters included.

Just a Girl in the World

Today, as you might know, is International Women’s Day, and as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed I was struck by the juxtaposition of two posts. The first was posted by an novelist/missionary I have the privilege of knowing through my work in the publishing industry. She and her husband serve some of the poorest of the poor in Mozambique. Here’s what she has been up to today:

The very next thing in my feed was this “sponsored” post (which is another way of saying it’s an ad):

A cooking hut for a woman being rebuilt with the help of another woman, who will also be helping to rebuild half a dozen other homes, made mostly of natural poles, dried plant matter, plastic tarps, and even garbage. Then a marble kitchen in a $35 million dollar compound.

I clicked through to see what $35 million dollars bought Gwen…

Now, I’m not a redistributionist. People can spend the money they have earned on what they want, and many wealthy people are great philanthropists. This post isn’t about the disparity between Mozambique and Beverly Hills. It’s about women.

And I’m not anti-Gwen Stefani. Like many people of my generation, I am a huge fan of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani’s band in the 1990s and early 2000s. I love her feminist song “Just a Girl,” which came out in 1995 when I was fifteen and felt all of its lyrics deeply. Ms. Stefani has done well for herself, projecting a confident, powerful female persona to millions of girls and women (though lyrics of some other songs and her overly sexual videos may undermine that at the same time).

My novelist/missionary friend from the first post? She writes strong female protagonists, sells tens of thousands of copies of each book, and is the winner of several awards, so she has a reach too. Still, when stacked up against Gwen Stefani and her rock-star kitchen, how many of us might be tempted to feel like the little things we were doing with our own lives just didn’t matter quite as much?

On this International Women’s Day, I’d like to submit that my novelist/missionary friend who is piecing back together grass huts that will likely fall apart again during the next big storm is doing more important and lasting work than Gwen Stefani, and that women should strive to be more like the woman with dirt under her fingernails than the one with the sterile, pristine, marble-ensconced palace who only encounters dirt in the tabloids.

Menial tasks that will have to be redone (like dishes, laundry, and cleaning) are not inconsequential or somehow “beneath” us, despite the fact that, unless you work in the cleaning industry, you do not get paid to do them. To those six or seven poor families who see a woman of God helping them rebuild, my friend’s labors may mean the difference between being safe and being exposed to the elements.

And that woman who is getting back her cooking hut? I bet she appreciates it more than Gwen Stefani appreciates her (frankly hard to look at) rock-star kitchen.

Today’s feminism often looks like a strange combination of worshiping Beyonce and screaming and flipping people off rather than listen to someone with whom you disagree. But feminism that makes a real difference in the lives of women is generally quieter than that. And frankly, it doesn’t pay all that well.

It’s my friend Jamie who works with women in the prison system.

It’s my friend Jeni who is in Thailand working to free women and girls from the sex trade.

It’s my sister Alison excelling at a traditionally male job.

It’s my mom who chose to stay at home with us when we were little, kept a clean house, and cooked dinner every night, but who also went to work when we were older.

It’s all of the amazing women writers I know who create female characters who have the wherewithal to admit when they are wrong and forgive when they’ve been wronged.

It’s the women in my church of different generations who have persevered through hardship, who have raised incredible children as single moms after unplanned pregnancies, who have survived a spouse’s infidelity, who have carried on with grace after the death of loved ones, who have been friends and mentors to other women.

If you are a woman reading this, I hope you won’t buy into the lie that feminism has to look a certain way. That it must be angry or hypersexual. That it must be full of bitter resentment against men or our society. It can simply be you being the best person you can be to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and yourself.

You don’t need Gwen’s rock-star kitchen to feel fulfilled. You don’t have to scream to be heard. Build a grass hut for someone. Get your hands dirty.

You’re just a girl in the world. But you get to decide what that’s going to look like.

The WFWA Writers Retreat 2016 (Or, The Enchanted Hotel)

A lot of conferences are held in fairly personalityless hotels that drain your energy by their very sameness to every other hotel out there.

Not so a retreat.

A retreat is meant to help you relax, rejuvenate, reconnect.

It’s not overscheduled.

It’s not attended by people you feel pressured to impress.

It’s a time to grow.

It’s about great food…

…great conversation…

…great views.

A time to nurture the friendships you already have…

…and a time to make new ones.

If you’re lucky, it is held in a place with admirable weather…

…attention to detail…

…and a sense of history.

For two years now, the WFWA Writing Retreat has been held at the marvelous Hotel Albuquerque in Old Town.

For four days I’ve lived outside — most of my meals and all of my writing time has been spent under sunny blue skies, with the occasional 2-minute sprinkling of rain, followed by soaring rainbows. But the inside’s gorgeous too.

The party may be over for 2016, but I’m not too sad.

Because I know that in one short year I will be back.

Writing for Our Better Selves

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These are the first lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a poem in nine books which was particularly beloved of Emily Dickinson. I’m just diving in to my copy, an 1884 printing of the 1859 text. This quote strikes me, a professional copywriter who is ever writing for others, as a lovely, selfish thought. That is what my fiction is–writing for me, for my better self.