Being Uprooted

cover of Naomi Novik book, Uprooted, showing woman holding glowing flower, surrounded by castles, vines, animals, and other people

I just read a new favorite book: Uprooted, an award-winning fantasy novel by Naomi Novik. I could write pages about how much I loved this book. (Everyone who likes fantasy should read it!)

The book is set in a made-up fairytale-like land that has hints of eastern Europe. (It also contains really amazing magic, numerous awesome female characters, intelligent solutions to conflict where more killing isn’t the answer, and a subtle love story that has you holding your breath until the final page.) The author writes in the notes that she drew bits from the tales her family shared when she was growing up.

While I loved and admired the book, I felt a little sad thinking about my own lack of connection with a culture somewhere in the world.


I’m working on my first fantasy novel, and it came out as some sort of fairytale. This made sense: I’ve always loved fairy tales. I used to check out the giant books of fairytales from the grade school library, books so big they barely fit in my book bag and were a challenge for little me to carry home. But reading Uprooted made me look for any hints of my family’s background in my novel, and I didn’t find any.

This reminded me of something I learned a few years ago, when I participated in a workshop put on by the Racial Equity Institute, located in Greensboro, NC: The workshop leaders had the participants write down a few things that each of us liked about being a member of our racial group. The white people wrote things like, “The police don’t assume I’m guilty” or “I’m given a fair chance when I interview for jobs.” The people of color wrote things like, “Our food” or “Our music.” The workshop leaders explained that becoming part of the majority group often involves giving up one’s own culture.*

xerox of old timey ad for W.E. Davis and Son fishery
My ancestors’ fishery

This idea rang true to me. I tried to think of instances of a family culture in my own life. I remember some large Italian meals on a big birthday, wedding day, or funeral day. I remember homemade pierogi made by the women at my gramma’s church, and a Slavic lullaby that I can hum, if not sing. Once my aunt and I hunted down information on the German side of our family in the local history room at the public library in Wilmington, NC, where they had once run a fishery. But all I seem to have are bits and pieces.


I wanted my story to have more depth, and I didn’t seem to have folk tales or a culture from my ancestors that I could use. This made me think, what do I have? What do I believe in one hundred percent, that I could use? Here’s what I came up with.

a drawing of a bridge leading forward into a forest with golden light at the far side

Religion. When I was about 30, I spent a few years thinking a lot about religion. I read a book about the world’s major religions that illustrated (at least to me) that the common thread is a higher power that we leave to come to earth and then return to. Different religions have different paths for this to occur: In many forms of Christianity, you get one chance to live a good life, and either you succeed and go back to the higher power, or you fail and don’t. In Hinduism (as far as I understand it), you are reincarnated over and over, slowly working your way up until you are ready to go back. In Buddhism, you can “skip ahead” of the cycles of reincarnation by altering your behavior to reach enlightenment ASAP.** Different religions also include or exclude the souls of animals as part of this higher power.

I decided this common thread would be the religion in my fantasy world, called the “old ways.” The fairies are still in touch with the old ways, the villagers are starting to forget, and the evil king has corrupted them with his own ideas.

Nonviolence. I eventually began attending Quaker meetings, where I learned about things like nonviolence and the power of sitting quietly and of listening. I had planned a revolt in my story, but hadn’t wanted to write a bunch of characters killing each other. I ended up with (spoiler) a successful nonviolent revolt. (I immediately connected with the unusual treatment of battles in Uprooted, although it is different than my own.)

The role of women. From the beginning I intended to write empowered female characters. It was harder than I thought; I kept catching myself making all the leaders men! But coming up with a religious philosophy for my world made me consider the role of women, and how it would get to be what it is; what would cause women to be respected or seen as equals, that is lacking in our world? It seemed like religion has played a big part in determining the roles women have in the real world.

pierogies with shredded cheese and bits of dates on top
Oh pierogies, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

But also, back when the main tasks people did were finding food and shelter, women’s role as mothers probably affected their roles in the community. I don’t know enough about the history of women’s roles in societies, and details about matriarchal cultures of the past are not easy to come by. So in this case, I’m glad not to be drawing from the recorded history of the real world, but instead inventing a history.

Miscellaneous stuff. I’ve noticed that my characters (at least the good ones) seem to eat kind of healthily. They do things like garden or make useful crafts. These activities come from communities I’m part of. I’ve worked for years at a natural food co-op, and I know a lot of farmers and value homegrown and homemade foods. I teach at the Campbell Folk School, which has taught me about traditional crafts like basketry and pottery. I’m also involved in a community of musicians and dancers who play old-time Appalachian music.

So while I might have lost the culture my ancestors knew, I’m able to find new communities to learn from and participate in. Maybe I am growing new roots.

*This idea is part of a much longer discussion, covering the history of race in America. A balance is maintained of having enough of a working class for the people in power to use them to make money, without having the numbers of the working class swell such that they might be able to revolt. The result is that subsets of people in the working class are periodically subsumed into the majority, or given some privileges to dissuade them from banding together with the rest of the working class to rebel. Not being very knowledgeable in this area, I hope I’m presenting the idea properly.

**These were my takeaways from reading this book, and are extremely simplified. I’m sure there is plenty of room for people to argue that I have it all wrong.

Compelling First Pages

a drawing of a giant book standin gin a countryside, with a tree and chair in the open pages, and birds and clouds swirling around the top of it

Novels need a first page that hooks the reader—whether it’s the agent you’re querying or the potential buyer browsing your book. Last week at the RWA conference I attended a panel of agents and editors assessing first pages of novels, as well as a session on submitting your novel that included tips for an effective first page. The first pages read aloud were all well written, but a few suggestions kept popping up.

Set the Scene, with Balance

Many of the first pages leapt into a scene, starting mid-fight or mid-dialogue. Over and over, the agents and editors commented, “We need to be grounded in the location” or “I need to know what genre this novel is.” Interestingly, no pages began with a long-winded description of the setting. I figured that all the writers had been told to start mid-scene and warned away from the long description, and gone to the opposite extreme, starting so mid-scene that readers could not understand the action, and providing no setting at all. One of the agents said, “Don’t throw the reader into the middle of the action if it is confusing. Start a breath before the action.”

In addition to providing a basic setting (time period and location, real or imaginary), the setting should be special to the book—not a travel guide–like description but a place that resonates with the story and couldn’t be swapped for any other location.

Make It Easy on the Reader

drawing of signpost with signs pointing to "historical" and "contemporary"

Getting into the story should be as easy for the reader as possible. Don’t take too long to get to the point (the interesting point, that makes the reader want more). Convey the story’s genre as soon as possible so the reader knows what to expect. Don’t introduce too many names all at once, or try to describe an entire family history or the entire setup of a fantasy world. Give enough interesting details that the reader wants to keep going, but don’t cram everything in at once.

Make sure the beginning is clear and understandable. In particular, don’t have too many “layers of remove”—for example, the character starts daydreaming of a different scene, or we enter a flashback. Make it easy for the reader to follow along.

Propel the Reader Forward

a drawing of a notebook with flowers around it' the notebook contains first lines of books: "Once upon a time..." "She thrust the sword into her foe and it stilled. She remembered the last time..." and "'Hey, how's it going?' the demon said. he sipped his latte..."

The first page should not be an average day in the main character’s life, or a mundane scenario that the reader has seen time and again. Something should make the day special. The reader should also have a reason to root for the main character. A glimpse of “regular life” is needed, too, so that the reader can see why the day is different than usual. Just don’t get bogged down. For example, don’t include mundane dialogue (even if in real life, people might have such a dialogue).

The first page should create some sort of tension, by presenting the conflict that the main character faces or hinting at the coming conflict. But then this tension must be maintained—don’t drop it after the first paragraph to set the scene or give background. Those setting and background details should be woven into the story in bits so that the main focus is the tension-filled story that maintains the reader’s interest.

It’s Okay to Be Quiet

two matching butterflies on small flowers next to each other, facing each other

In a week I’ll be at the Romance Writers of America’s national conference. I was feeling nervous about it at work yesterday, and I told my coworker that I imagined arriving, and how I’d be surrounded by confident people talking assertively, for hours. My coworker pointed out that other people might like talking to someone more quiet. I’d been assuming that, because I’m not assertive, I was somehow less than.

It’s not true, and I’ve learned this lesson before!

Example #1: One time, my friend Loren and I took our dinner out behind our apartment building to eat on a hillside overlooking the park. Two guys were playing baseball, and after a while they came over to talk to us. One of them did all the talking, was loud, and made jokes, while the other one didn’t say a word. And I liked the quiet guy better!

Example #2: One time when I was at the Campbell Folk School, an Australian blacksmith was on campus the same week. I wanted to talk to him but was too scared to sit near him at meals. I assumed he would not want to talk to me; plus another woman who was boisterous was always hanging around him. On Friday night after the bonfire, when I got up to leave, he got up, too, and said he’d walk back to the dorms with me. On the walk, we totally hit it off! Why had I assumed he would not be interested in talking to me? We sat together at Saturday breakfast, the final meal of the week.

I don’t need to have the most conversations or impress everyone I talk to. All I have to do at the conference is be authentic and open to conversations happening, and I’ll find people to connect with.

Blurbs, Taglines, Pitches, and Queries

writing pad and pen on table with plant, with mug of coffee that reads "Go get 'em"
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

I’ve been preparing for the RWA 2019 conference, where I plan to pitch my fantasy romance novel, The Forest Bride,to agents and editors. After much reading and study, I finally (I think) have a grasp on the differences between a blurb, a tagline, a pitch, and a query.

Since I struggled with understanding these differences, I thought I’d share them.*

The Blurb

This is a catchy few sentences that aims to hook potential readers into wanting more. It is used in various ways (see more below), and you can have different versions of it to use in different places. It often ends up as the back cover copy when your book is published. As an example, here is mine for The Forest Bride:

When Princess Rose is sold in marriage to a repulsive brute, only one person can save her: Prince Dustan, the suitor she hoped for, and the one her father didn’t choose. But Rose learns that Dustan harbors a secret: he may not be a prince… or human. Can Rose trust Dustan? Or will his hidden agenda prove even more perilous than the marriage he helped her escape?

The Tagline

This is a brief one or two sentences to catch someone’s attention. You can have more than one. One often appears on the back cover of the book, before the blurb. When they make a movie of your story, this might appear on the poster. Here’s mine:

Her fiancé was a monster. Her rescuer may be worse.

The Pitch

woman with long hair in long dress, running down path in dark forest
Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

The pitch is what you say when telling someone about your book. It varies depending on the circumstances. For example, a shorter pitch is needed if you meet an agent in the elevator and she asks what you are writing, or if you attend a pitch event with short time slots. A longer pitch might be okay if, over dinner, another writer asks what you are writing, or if you attend a pitch event with longer time slots.

The pitch includes some basic information, some variation of your blurb, and comparable titles. It should balance using precise wording with being natural (i.e., don’t memorize and read it). I’m participating in four-minute pitch sessions, so I planned a “one-sentence pitch.” (Run-on sentences seem to be allowed.) Here’s what I plan to say (note, I’ve never done this, so post-conference I might have a different view of this):

The Forest Bride is a 70,000-word fantasy romance set in the agrarian kingdom of Sarland.

It follows a princess, Rose, who’s sold in marriage to a repulsive brute, and the only one who can save her is Prince Dustan, who’s the suitor her father didn’t choose; but Dustan has secrets: he may not be a prince… or even human. 

The Forest Bride is Ella Enchanted, written by Sarah J. Maas. My target audience includes readers who enjoyed Jeffe Kennedy’s Mark of the Tala or Miranda Honfleur’s No Man Can Tame.

The Query

The query is a letter you send to agents (or editors) to ask them to consider your novel. This could be a first attempt at contact, or a follow-up to an invitation from an agent you pitched to. (If the latter, you begin the query by reminding the agent how you met.) The query letter includes basic information about your novel, some form of the blurb, comparable titles, plus some other possibilities. There are many articles online about how to write an effective query letter, plus some about what NOT to do.

I hope this helps clear up any confusion about the differences between these items. If you have a different understanding of how they work, please share it.

*I’m not giving advice here on how to write effective blurbs, etc., because I’d only be copying the advice of others. Many articles online give good pointers for pitching and/or querying. What really helped me understand the different was an online class with Linnea Sinclair, “Pitches, Blurbs, and Taglines, Oh My,” which I highly recommend. The class is also a great way to get the items written, while getting excellent feedback.

The terms may differ for non-fiction.

horizontal banner with pine tree trunks and a large birdhouse

May News Update

Happy May! Here’s what I’m up to this spring and summer.

Bread News

tables set up under tent with books for sale, dishes and containers with bread ad dough, labeled with signs
My booth at the bread festival

I had a great time at the Asheville Bread Festival on April 13. While I was sad not to teach, I really enjoyed staffing my booth throughout the fair and talking to bread enthusiasts. I always wish I could attend more bread gatherings (like the Kneading Conference in Maine), and hope that someday I’ll have the time.

I’m heading to the Folk School at the end of May for a week of “Making Traditional Breads.” This class is full, but I have two classes scheduled for 2020: Making Traditional Breads in late April, and the Science of Bread in September. Registration is not yet available, but should open for the April class this summer.

Book News: A New Cover

book cover

Over the past few months, I’ve been studying book covers and considering the cover of my bike trip memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere. I created my own design for a few reasons: to save money, because I thought I could create something not-too-bad, and because I didn’t know where to begin finding a designer. And, the self-made cover was never a problem with Bread Science.

I quickly regretted the decision, as I realized how much harder it is to market a memoir. A concept I’ve come to accept is that “No one wants to buy your book” and people are looking for any excuse they can not to buy it. Unfortunately, a homemade cover signals that the writing might be sub-par and gives people an excuse to pass up the book. And, readers are more likely to pick up a book that fits in with the genre, simply because they feel comfortable with it. While some cover designs break from trends and succeed, these designs often have huge budgets behind them, or an already famous author. So, much as we artists like to be unique, book covers are one time when it is best to blend in.

drawing of book with question mark on an otherwise blank cover

So, I’m having a professional cover designed! Initially I’ll use it with the ebook, and eventually it will be on the print version as well. I don’t have anything to share yet, but look for it this summer.

As for the back cover… I thought I had written some pretty catchy back cover copy. But I wrote it targeting a general audience—that same audience that is actively trying not to read my book. Over the past two years, I’ve felt very anxious about trying to promote Somewhere and Nowhere. I realized that I’d feel more comfortable promoting it to a more specific audience—the people I think will really “get” it.

So I rewrote the back cover copy to try to reach these potential readers. I blogged about this here: I’ll debut the new book description along with the new cover this summer.

Romance Writing

white azaleas blooming under trees with a birdhouse on a pole in back
Here are some azaleas from a recent visit to the WRAL azalea garden in Raleigh

I’m registered to attend the Romance Writers of America conference in New York this July. I’ve decided to focus on my fairytale romance, Rose Fair, since it is more polished. I’ve been working on how to pitch it and trying to find comparable titles. I plan to meet agents and editors at the conference, to make connections and see if I can sell the novel. I’m not opposed to self-publishing, but am interested to explore the traditional route.

pink azaleas blooming under pine trees and a sunny sky
More azaleas

I haven’t been able to find good comparable titles yet. My book officially falls into the category of “paranormal romance,” unless the publisher has a separate fantasy category. Regardless, mine is much more “light” and happy than most of what I’ve found, where magic is full of darkness and violence. And certain things seem to be “in”: one reviewer was sure the dog would turn into the love interest. Nope, just a dog.

a pink rhododendron blooming under tall pine trees
Rhododendrons, too!

On one hand, I might not mind changes to help the book sell. But on the other hand, I believe there are readers for my book, even if publishers haven’t yet recognized them. I read a piece about Generation X, and how we don’t like our characters to suffer. But we’re sandwiched in between generations that do, and writing teachers are often from an older generation that promotes this suffering. I would like to write for my people. So I know that my book might not have a place in the traditional publishing industry, but I’m interested to find out.


Here are my other recent blog posts, in case you missed them. If you already saw these come through your inbox, just ignore this!

flyer for event with time and location, and cartoon of computer, papers, and coffee

Save the date for my free talk on “Old-Fashioned Self-Publishing” at the Orange County Main Library on September 22 at 2 PM. The talk looks at self-publishing with as few intermediaries as possible as a starting point, and then discusses where and why an author might value an intermediary. I’m working to streamline the talk so it will be a little shorter than last time. The slides from last time are still available, here:

And finally, I’ll re-share the link to Michael Hilburn’s interview with me on the Sourdough Podcast, because I’ve had so many people tell me they enjoyed it:

row of silhouettes of people, including people in suits and dresses, with one person highlighted with a checkmark

Back Cover, Take II

When I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, my bike trip memoir, I didn’t invest in the cover as I should have. In addition to wanting a professional design, I’ve been rethinking the back cover copy based on some things I’ve learned.

The Old Copy

crowd of Lego people

When I wrote the original back cover copy, I was trying to appeal to a broad audience: bicyclists, cross-country travelers, female travelers, memoir enthusiasts. I thought the copy was pretty catchy:

One summer, two young women head west on their bicycles from Cape May, New Jersey. In three months on the road, they battle 14-percent-grade hills, tornado-force winds, and 110 degree heat. They are sheltered by everyone from nuns to cowboys. They swim in the Missouri River, climb the Rocky Mountains, and cross the Continental Divide–three times. And eventually, they reach the Pacific.

Emily hoped to find peace and happiness away from the clutter of life. With nothing to do but ride her bike all day, life would be simpler… or would it?

I never felt comfortable promoting the book, though. Then I read Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing. His book describes reaching a small, specific audience. The readers who’ll be my book’s fans (I think) are people who struggle to be present and to calm the noise in their heads. I wanted to rewrite the cover copy to reach these readers.

The New Copy

row of silhouettes of people, including people in suits and dresses, with one person highlighted with an arrow and the words "My reader!"

I watched a webinar about back cover copy. I heard it said that no one is TRYING to find your book. People are so overwhelmed these days that they are actively trying NOT to read your book. Any excuse not to buy it will be enough to stop them. So your cover copy needs to convince them they must read it, by showing what the book will do for them. (This is easier to do with a non-fiction book. Memoirs by unknown authors are especially hard, as they’re competing with so many celebrity memoirs.)

Last weekend in the library, I saw a book called 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do. I walked past thinking, “I don’t need something else to read,” but then found myself going back to it. I thought, “I’ll just read the back cover.” The back cover listed right out the 13 things, and I wanted NOT to do them. I wanted to know how. I had to check out the book.

book cover with sunshine and bike lying on ground

I realized the book’s marketing had worked perfectly on me. So I tried rewriting Somewhere and Nowhere’s back cover copy in the style of the library book. I got feedback from friends. Here is the current version:


When Emily and Mary head west from Cape May, New Jersey, Emily imagines the peace she’ll find bicycling across the open spaces of America. With nothing to do all day but ride her bike, life will be simpler… or will it?

Emily battles 14-percent-grade hills, tornado-force winds, and 110 degree heat, waiting for the fun to start. As the women find shelter with everyone from nuns to cowboys, she clings to the best moments. And on the wide open plains, she comes face to face with the noise in her head.

But as she crosses the Mississippi and climbs the Rocky Mountains, she begins to discern patterns: Worries that hound her. Recurring thoughts that impede her happiness. Daydreams that remove her from reality. She discovers a path to transform herself, even as she begins to accept the present moment.

I’m still soliciting feedback and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I’d also love to know any books with back cover copy you could not resist.

drawing of woman in old-fashioned dress reading a book, with word bubble that reads, His pandiculation caught her eye, and the pulchritudinous curve of his arms made her heart palpitate"; also book cover of How Not To Write a Novel, small and in the middle

Book Review: How Not to Write a Novel

Since beginning to write fiction, I’ve read numerous books on self-editing and the craft of writing. How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark is a different kind of book.

Most Books

Books on the craft of writing abound. Many present a strategy: a method of plotting the action, steps to develop the main character, or a structure the novel must follow. I classify these books into three types, which depend on their reader:

  • Books you totally “get,” and get a lot out of
  • Books that give you a few good pointers
  • Books that don’t speak to you at all
stack of books with bar sinister over them

Reading books on the craft of writing, trying to find the ones that resonate with you, seems like a good idea, if you can make the time for it. Similar information can be found online, in classes, or at conference sessions.

I’ve gotten more value from books on revising your draft. The two I always recommend are The First Five Pages (Lukeman) and Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King). Much of what is useful is what NOT to do: Don’t use adverbs when you could use a better verb. Don’t use multiple descriptive terms in place of “said.” This guidance overlaps with what I found in How Not to Write a Novel.

This Book

How Not to Write a Novel is a long list of what not to do, divided into sections (e.g., plot, characters) and sub-sections (e.g., beginnings, bad guys). The reason not to do the things listed is that an agent or editor will reject your novel because of them. So, the authors don’t argue that one method is better than another, simply that if you want to be traditionally published in today’s world, you should follow the advice.

drawing of woman in old-fashioned dress reading a book, with word bubble that reads, His pandiculation caught her eye, and the pulchritudinous curve of his arms made her heart palpitate"

Some examples:

  • From the plot section, “The Waiting Room”: Don’t begin your book with a long introduction of background information, so that the reader is waiting and waiting for the story to start.
  • From the character section, “The Clone Entourage”: Don’t introduce the main character’s five friends who are indistinguishable and do not have separate purposes in the plot.
  • From the style section, “The Puffer Fish”: Don’t use a huge amount of difficult vocabulary, which distracts the reader and makes you seem like a show-off.

Each item has a title, an example, and an explanation. Reading the example (using while cringing) really clarifies the “bad behavior” and motivates one to avoid it. The book is also very funny and an easy read.

book cover of How Not to Write a Novel, which shows gun pointing at kitten

The book’s only flaw is the final section, in which the authors discuss self-publishing. They make the good point that even if you plan to self-publish, forgoing agents and editors, you should still strive to publish the best novel possible. But they equate self-publishing with using a vanity press, and they contend that a success story in self-publishing is one that ends with the author getting a traditional publishing deal. These days, hundreds of romance authors are making a living with self-publishing. Some traditionally published authors are turning to self-publishing as a better way to make a career writing, due to the higher returns. One of the biggest self-publishing success stories is Wool by Hugh Howey; while he did eventually work with a traditional publisher, he retained ebook rights, and I’d argue his was a success story before the traditional deal. I was saddened that two people with so much knowledge of the publishing industry would have such a narrow view of self-publishing.

But other than that last section, this is a great book!

a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Feminism and Romance Writing

Last weekend at the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers’ Monthly Meeting, Katharine Ashe spoke about feminism and romance novels. Katharine presented a list of “tropes”—characters or situations commonly used in romance—that she proposed writers leave behind.

But she recognized that some tropes might be “old favorites” that would be hard to leave behind. She used an analogy of a favorite chocolate cake her mom made. As she got older, the cake gave her headaches. At first she thought she’d have to stop eating it, or suffer the headaches. But she researched and eventually learned certain types of chocolate caused the headache. She started making the cake with different chocolate, and was able to enjoy it again. She asserted that we can change what we write while still keeping what we love about writing romance.

Setting the Stage

a man "playfully' choking a woman, both wearing medieval costumes
Ugh, not so sexy in real life

Katharine discussed the statement that “readers know the difference between fantasy and reality,” which is often given to justify including something in a book that might not be acceptable in real life. She gave some examples of studies showing that fiction can affect the brain and behavior, even if the reader doesn’t think it has. (She didn’t need to convince me; when I returned to Disney World as an adult, I realized what a warped sense of relationships I’d developed, probably as a result of too many fairy tales.)

She also made the point that her call to remove certain tropes from romance isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about creating books that display good behaviors, to ultimately make the world better. Heroines in romance should leave readers feeling stronger.

Feminism 101

Katharine gave her definition of feminism, which is simply a belief in equality. The word has been disparaged to the point that some people are uncomfortable with it, even if they believe in gender equality.

a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Someone asked about the reality of history, when women often didn’t have many rights. Katharine pointed out that today, women have legal rights but still lack power. In past centuries, they might not have had legal rights, but they still could have power; often the instances of this are not recorded in mainstream history. For example, Katharine wrote a heroine who’s a pamphleteer (like an 1800s activist blogger) in the Regency period; this was a real thing, but no one knows about it.

Tropes to Retire

Finally Katharine presented the list of outdated tropes. Here are some that I liked best:

a smiling male cartoon doctor, and an overly sexy cartoon nurse holding a needle
No more of this!
  • The hero is a misogynist who hates all women, until he falls for the heroine; wouldn’t it be better if he LIKED women and still picked her?
  • The hero is a villain whom the heroine tames into domesticity; wouldn’t it be more exciting if they were allies, and if both of them were part domestic and part wild?
  • The hero’s behavior would, in real life, be creepy harassment.
  • The heroine is exceptional, the only woman like her in the world.
  • The hero has more power or authority than the heroine (he’s the doctor, she’s a nurse), or more money while the heroine struggles financially. Why not try making them equal or flipping the traditional roles? Note that “power” doesn’t have to equal money; it can also be about the characters’ personalities.
  • The hero physically rescues the heroine, while the heroine emotionally rescues him.
  • The heroine is pitted against an evil “other woman” and must best her to win; it would be better for the heroine to have female friends.

Katharine concluded that yes, these tropes still work to create an appealing story. But authors can choose not to use them, because it would be better if they went away. And readers might like new stories better: A large part of the reason the old tropes persist isn’t that readers like them, but that large publishing houses keep putting them out, and the marketing budgets are spent convincing people they want to read them. This situation is slowly improving with the rise of independent publishing. 

two daffodils in early morning sunshine

Spring Is Here! Classes, Sourdough, and Romance Novels

Each year around the start of spring, I find myself making plans for the rest of the year. I value winter for the time indoors (i.e., without yard work), but it’s hard not to be excited when the daffodils appear and the weather warms. The year feels filled with promise.

Press (!)

Emily holding a heart-shaped baguette over her heart
Valentine’s Day bread

In February, Michael Hilburn interviewed me for the Sourdough Podcast. We talked about sourdough science and myths, among other things. The episode is here:

I also cohosted with Sarah Cypher the Editorial Freelancers Association’s February #EFAChat on Twitter, which was about self-publishing. The archive of the chat is here:

This Year’s Events (So Far)

artisan breads with logo for Asheville Bread Festival

Due to some scheduling complications, I’m not teaching at the Asheville Bread Festival (April 13). It turns out I am able to attend, however, so look for me outdoors at the Bread Fair with a bread science booth. Learn more and sign up for classes:

I’m teaching Baking Traditional Breads at the Folk School in May, but I believe the class is already full. If you want to get on the wait list, you can do so here. Tentative dates for 2020 are April 26 to May 2, 2020 (Making Traditional Breads) and September 20 to 26, 2020 (The Science of Bread).

I’m giving my presentation on “old-fashioned self-publishing” at the Orange County Public Library on September 22 at 2 PM. The talk looks at self-publishing with as few intermediaries as possible as a starting point, and then discusses where and why an author might value an intermediary. I’m working to streamline the talk so it will be a little shorter than last time. The slides from last time are still available, here:

In other news, I am hoping to attend both the Romance Writers of America conference in July and the Editorial Freelancers Association conference in August. (The writer conference is what I need right now, but last time I attended the editor conference, I felt so much like “These are my people!” that I’d hate to miss it.)

My Writing Career

a construction sign that has folded over on itself so that it reads "Be Prepared", with a rainy roadside
I saw this as I left my office job one afternoon and it gave me a laugh

I’ve got a new plan for my writing endeavors taped on the kitchen cabinet. What I’ve gathered from classes and reading is that to have a career as a writer, I need to produce a lot of books that are in one genre. Readers will expect consistency, and I don’t want to let them down. At first this concept seemed stifling, but I looked at my favorite authors. For example, I’ll read anything by Sarah Dessen because I know there will be a teenage girl protagonist struggling with family issues and figuring out where she belongs.

So my current situation is, I have three manuscripts in three different genres. I need to pick which genre to focus on—which genre I think I can produce more books in, and which manuscript I want to pitch to agents at the conference this summer. (I’m not opposed to self-publishing but am interested to give the traditional process a try.) I’m currently trying to read as much as possible, to figure out where my books fit in.

single daffodil growing on a lawn in a neighborhood
The first daffodil of spring!

I’ve also become more clear-eyed about readers. Most Bread Science readers are not going to be interested in a bicycle trip memoir or women’s fiction. Even among women’s fiction readers, those who value one type of book may not be interested in another. Thinking about the inevitable one-star ratings and hateful reviews that every book gets on Goodreads made me imagine a book-sharing website where the ratings and reviews you see are from other readers who have the most “book overlap” with you, based on your own ratings. I blogged about this here:

an open book with the pages folded into a heart, with a pink rose

I’m currently thinking about the themes and character growth that are likely to keep popping up in my books. It’s kind of a relief to realize that I don’t have to come up with a brand new theme each time—I only have so many major life lessons to share! I’m wondering how to convey these themes to reach readers who’ll appreciate them. Two related bog posts:

Tips about writing back cover copy that hooks the potential reader, from a webinar featuring Lee Silber,

Considering the “inciting incident” that led to a misconception I held as an adult: the time in middle school when a boy made fun of me for going to the school dance,

That’s probably enough news for now. It’s nice that spring keeps returning each year to bring the feeling of promise, even as life progresses steadily on.

crackers with hummus spread on them and raw peppers, plus fruit scattered nearby

Writing for My People

a couple in a coffeeshop, seen through the window; they are holding hands and she is wearing glasses
They’re on a date! And she’s wearing glasses!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the different communities of readers in the world. As a future published fiction author, I want to write books that readers will like. At the same time, I want to write books that I like.

A lot of book characters have different lifestyles than I do.* Which is fine, but sometimes I wish I could read about a character more like me. So perfect; I’ll write that character!

But I see these things so often… is this what readers want? Is my writing career doomed if I can’t muster the willpower to include these in my books?

Ugh I Could Never Write This

Here are some things you probably won’t find in my books:

a candy car with caramel and chocolate poking out of a wrapper
Delicious… or toxic?
  • Characters eating junk food constantly, with relish. I dislike how the sugar and corn (syrup) industries have so much power, and how their products cause major health problems.
  • Female characters wearing makeup and heels. Some women like to wear these—great. But other women wear them because they are expected to in their job or situation, which bothers me.
  • Characters wearing perfume and cologne. I have a hypothesis about scent: Studies show that scent helps humans determine who their compatible partners are. So wouldn’t wearing perfume or cologne confuse the issue? Blinded by fragrance, people will begin relationships that are less likely to work in the long run. Also I just find all cologne stinky.
  • And even if they’re not wearing cologne, characters always smell like random things (cinnamon, strawberries… sandalwood shows up a lot).
  • Characters who spend their free time shopping and watching television.

Things You Might Find in My Books

Here’s what I’m likely to put in a book. I’m hoping other readers would like characters with these habits:

crackers with hummus spread on them and raw peppers, plus fruit scattered nearby
And then they ate some hummus!
  • Characters eating a meal with vegetables.
  • Characters wearing practical clothes. And when they do dress up, flat shoes.
  • Characters who wear glasses. Even on a date.
  • Characters who smell like soap or clean laundry or vague, natural things like “the forest.”
  • Characters who read and go on walks in their free time.

*I’m not saying these things are wrong or that I don’t ever do them, just that I don’t want to promote them or encourage them to be the norm.