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Need a Great Summer Read? Want to Avoid a Bad One?

As always, I use summer as an excuse to plow through the books collecting on my nightstand (as well as under it). To qualify as a “great summer read,” I want a book that offers sympathetic characters, depth of emotion, and a forward narrative momentum that keeps me sitting on the porch long after the fireflies have gone to bed.

Here are the beach reads I’ve tried so far that I thought would meet that criteria. Some did, some didn’t.

COVER OF SNOW by Jenny Milchman
This hair-raising book centers on Nora Hamilton, the wife of a cop whose world is turned upside down when her husband commits suicide. It soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems, and this book, with its fantastic descriptions of small-town life in the Adirondacks and tense emotions, grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Milchman’s muscular prose delivers psychological terror, creepy side characters, and amazingly beautiful (if grim) descriptions of the landscape.

For something a little lighter, reach for this this astonishingly clever, often side-splittingly funny romp. You think your family is dysfunctional? Check out the Posts, who take a vacation with their children and friends to the island of Mallorca, Spain. There is lust and fighting aplenty, yet somehow Straub manages to make every one of her characters likeable—plus, she has some extremely wise, tender observations about love, family, and friendships to share along the way.

BITTERSWEET by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
This is one hot mess of an almost-great book. I picked up BITTERSWEET because it had gotten so much media attention that I couldn’t avoid it. As someone who loves a good Gothic read of any kind, I was really looking forward to this novel because it seemed to have everything I adore: a wealthy creepy family, a gorgeous lakeside setting, and a dumpy heroine looking for love in all the wrong places. I read it straight through in two days, so kudos to the author for keeping my interest. There are plenty of plot twists and enough sex to keep you turning pages. However, the writing is overwrought—a stylistic thing, perhaps—and, by the time I finished this book, I regretted the time spent on it. The plot twists are completely improbable (and yet predictable), one plot line is dropped completely, there were a lot of sluggish paragraphs, and the characters—without exception—were completely annoying. By the end of the book I was kind of hoping some giant sinkhole would swallow the entire family compound.

I’ve always liked Anna Quindlen for her heartfelt emotions, crisp writing, and the way she approaches topical issues (domestic violence, for instance) without seeming to hit you over the head with the themes. I wanted to love this book, since the themes and bones of the story are good—they deal with a woman artist who is sixty years old and believes her best years are behind her, only to discover, as she spends time alone in a cabin in the woods, that it is, indeed, possible to reinvent yourself—as well as the nature of art and how that defines you when you succeed (or fail). However, much of the writing and story felt underdeveloped to me, and the May-December romance with the hunky roofer just feels tacked on to keep female readers happy.

THE COLD SONG by Linn Ullmann
I’m a big fan of mystery novels for summer reads, especially those set in exotic places. This one, set in Norway, is ostensibly about the murder of a nanny, but its real focus is the family that employed her. Ullmann is extremely skilled at moving between multiple points of view—no easy task—and her descriptions are energetic and captivating at times. She also does a great job when writing about tension in a marriage, incompetent parenting, and writer’s block. However, most of the characters are people you’d cross the street to avoid, and the narrative momentum wavers and finally dies out completely. If you’re looking for a taut, fast-paced mystery, this book is definitely not for you.

WHITE HEAT by M.J. McGrath
Since we have a summer house in Canada, I’ve been searching high and low for great reads set in Canada. This is one of my favorites. WHITE HEAT takes place on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the Arctic circle, and it’s the first novel in a series featuring hunter, tourist guide, and sometimes-detective Edie Kiglatuk, a half-Inuit woman. Here, Edie is drawn into solving a mystery revolving around the death of her stepson and two tourists. The book is rich with geological and cultural details that are almost as gripping as the mystery itself, such as when our heroine downs a bowl of seal blood, builds a snow cave for her husky, or stands still as lemmings race over her feet.

Every Writer’s Nightmare: The Photo Shoot

The singer Lorde recently made headlines for posting “actual” pictures of herself, acne scars and all, when the media ran digitally-altered pictures showing her with a perfect creamy perfection. Her photos were accompanied by a healthy message: “Remember, flaws are ok.”

I kept repeating that mantra as I suffered through a photo shoot recently for my next novel. It didn’t work. The minute the photographer sent me the proofs, I said, “Um, isn’t there a way you can, you know, tweak these?”

Shame on me, I know. But hell. If my author photo is going to grace Amazon pages, web sites, and press materials from my publisher, do I really want to look like Homer Simpson after a thirty-year binge of beer and chips?

I didn’t even want a new author photo. I’m the one in my family who always holds the camera and is therefore never in family pictures. There’s a reason for that: I’m camera-shy. Or maybe even camera-phobic.

Besides, I was pleased as punch with the publicity shot I already had–the one you see on my web site now. This photo was taken by my daughter’s friend, a woman in her twenties who wasn’t afraid to smooth and liquify and do whatever else was necessary to make me look like I must have as a bride the first time around, before raising a blended family of five children, moving four times, weathering health and financial crises, and writing books around the clock—a practice that means I’m hunched in front of the computer for seven hours at a time. Not exactly a recipe for aging gracefully.

However, I hate picking up subsequent books by authors through the years and seeing the same photo over and over. I’m disappointed—I want to see how other people change over time.

When this photographer sent me the unretouched photos, I was—I admit it—shocked by the lines in my face. But that was only because it was MY face. If this were someone else’s face—some other author’s or actor’s—I would love these photographs as art, as portraits of someone who looks intelligent and compelling. Someone who has taken risks, loved, lost, and lived a full life.

Yes, that’s the adjective I’ll hang my hat on: “compelling.” I am not getting wrinkles. I’m gaining character in my face. Those laugh lines were meant to be there. So were the furrows between my eyebrows. After all, you can’t write novels without thinking hard for hours, weeks, months at a stretch about these other worlds you’re creating. Do I want to look expressionless, smoothed by Photoshop or Botox? I do not.

Well, that’s a lie. Part of me really does want to look that way. I want to be as wise as I am now while still having the breasts and skin and knees of a twentysomething. I want to have my family and my husband and my house and my garden, my whole writer’s life—but I want to have the energy I had at thirty.

I miss my youth. But, if I had to choose between author photos of a young woman who has yet to live, and these pictures of a writer who has children and friends and a husband she adores, and work she is so impassioned about that she wants to sit at the computer for hours at a time, then I will choose the pictures of that woman. I want to look like what I am: a writer who has lived and learned, and is living and learning, still, full steam ahead.

I emailed the photographer back. “I’d still like you to tweak those photos a little,” I said, “but just a little. I still want to look like me.”

Turning Family Stories into Novels: The Boy in the Back Bedroom

My mother tells better stories than anyone. As a child, my favorite was about the time she babysat for a family in her rural Maine town. The parents told her the children were asleep, and that she could do homework in the kitchen and help herself to a snack. The only rule was that she was not to go down the hall and open the door to the last room on the left.

Naturally, being twelve years old and the beautiful, adored sister of two adventurous older brothers, Mom was a rule breaker. The minute she heard the car back out of the driveway, she was tiptoeing down the dimly lit hallway to press her ear to that mysterious door. To her shock, noises were coming from the other side.

After a moment’s hesitation, Mom slowly turned the knob and inched the door open a crack. A child came dashing out, nearly feral in his animal sounds and movements, blindly grasping at her clothing and body.

This scene may or may not have really happened exactly like this. Researchers have shown how our memories alter each time we take them off some shelf in our brains, examine them, and put them back. As my mother told us this story, she could have embellished the tale, too, adding details to keep my own brothers and me quiet on long car rides.

When people ask how I get ideas for my novels, I tell them that a writer’s mind is like that junk drawer in your kitchen. You throw all kinds of things into that drawer: paper clips, rubber bands, business cards, receipts, Legos, odd coins, bits of string. Likewise, writers go around collecting snippets of dialogue overheard at the grocery store, cool looking cars, people you meet at dinner parties, and family stories. The stories that haunt you—like this one—are the ones that typically form the genesis for a novel.

In my new book, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, the central story revolves around sisters whose father, as he is dying, says, “Find your brother and tell him the truth.” The only problem is that they don’t have a brother, so how can they tell him the truth?

Of course, it gradually emerges that they did have a brother, and the narrative is launched as they begin to search for him. The oldest sister has a dim memory of once opening the door to a bedroom and finding a blind, panicked boy behind it. In the novel, the search for the missing brother reads like a mystery, with the three sisters trying to uncover clues to discover what happened between their parents before they were born.

Novelists weave fiction entertain, to make people think and feel things about their lives, and to promote fresh perspectives on timeless human conflicts. Fiction pokes at the deeper questions we all wrestle with: How can I forgive someone in my family who has betrayed me? How can I learn to love again if I’ve been hurt before? What does it really mean to be a family? What is the point of parenthood, if your children only grow up to leave you?

I may never know the truth behind my mother’s childhood story. Who was that boy? Why was he locked in that back bedroom and kept a secret? As I was writing this novel and asking her questions, my mother told me, somewhat vaguely, that she thinks this child was probably born to the couple’s teenage daughter out of wedlock.

“Maybe they kept him in that bedroom out of shame, because they believed this blind child was God’s punishment for her sins,” I suggested.

“Maybe,” she said with a shrug.

For my mother, this story was a memory. She has moved on. For me, the story became a quest: I wrote BEACH PLUM ISLAND because I needed to create a world where something tragic like this could happen, find out why, and put things right again for a frightened little boy.

Should You Hire a Book Publicist?

“So, what’s your publisher doing to promote your novel?” a friend asked when I sold my second book.

The truth was that I had no idea. Something, I hoped. It has taken me two decades to start selling fiction. In that time, I’ve seen writer friends publish novels that bring in royalties by the fistful, while others despair as their books sink like concrete blocks in icy quarries.

What makes the difference between a book that sells and one that tanks?

Nobody knows.

The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to prove to my publisher that my novels were a worthy investment. For my first novel, I created a web site; wrote guest posts for book blogs; built a Twitter following; and arranged my own tour of literary festivals, book clubs and libraries. Now I had to think about what stones, or even pebbles, I’d left unturned.

“Maybe you should hire an outside publicist,” another friend suggested.

My husband was appalled. “How can you justify the expense?” he wanted to know. “Will you actually earn back that money if you spend it on a publicist?”

That, of course, is the million dollar question in advertising. It’s difficult to quantify just what your marketing dollars will buy when you’re selling any product. To support my fiction habit, I’ve been a college marketing writer for years. I know the admissions “yield” of any brochure, billboard or postcard is uncertain. At the same time, getting a college’s name out there is essential if the school is going to survive.

“I think I have to try it,” I told my husband. “Fiction is my business now, and every business has to invest money in publicity.”

Of course, I had no idea how much money a publicist would cost, and I was gobsmacked by their fees. Many outside book publicists require contracts of six months to a year, and their rates are high enough to bring a struggling novelist to her knees. Finally, though, I found a publicist who used to work at a big traditional house and seemed experienced and smart. Even better, she charged by the hour, with only a 10-hour minimum. I decided I could afford those ten hours and hired her six months ahead of the release time for my new novel, Beach Plum Island. Here’s what I’ve learned in that time:

1. Be Up Front with Your In-House Publicist. If you’re lucky enough to have an in-house publicist, as I do, tell her you’re hiring backup and ask what specific things she’ll be doing so your outside publicist won’t duplicate her efforts (and cost you valuable hours). If you’re an indie author, no worries!

2. An Outside Publicist Can Fill in Gaps. Once I knew what my in-house publicist was doing, it was easy to work with my outside publicist to create a list of additional web sites and blogs related to themes relevant to Beach Plum Island. For instance, the in-house publicist hit up fiction blogs while we contacted parenting sites. The in-house publicist also took on the trade magazines and national media, so my outside publicist and I went to work on local media and Internet radio. Writers of self-published books should split their tasks with publicists the same way. What do you feel comfortable doing, and what would you rather hire outside help to do?

3. Keep Up Your Own Efforts. You can’t fade into the woodwork just because you have a publicist. Recently, I had a writer pal over for dinner who complained because her publisher “did next to nothing to promote my book.” The truth is that all publishers will promote their books to some degree, but they have limited budgets just like we do. These days, every writer, indie or traditionally-published, should commit to interacting with readers and dedicating a little time each day to social media through blogging, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else you have fun doing. Don’t forget to introduce yourself to every bookseller within driving distance, too.

4. Update Your Team Regularly. Once a month, I put together a memo summarizing what both publicists and I have done and send it to both publicists—as well as to my agent and editor.

6. Take the Snowball Marketing Approach. It used to be that publishers launched a book with advertising and an author tour, then moved on to other titles. This is still true, with one big difference: most authors no longer have their tours paid for by their publishers unless they’re Stephen King. I’d suggest visiting libraries and bookstores wherever you have friends and family to put you up for a night and wherever you can fill chairs, whether that’s through book clubs, literary festivals, or appearing in towns where people already know you. Otherwise, don’t bother. Either of your publicists will help you arrange these events, or you can do the footwork yourself. Many venues love it when authors team up, too, so see if you have any writer friends with books that would appeal to a similar audience and arrange to do panels and discussions instead of individual readings. The good thing about all of this is that, thanks to the digital age, writers can take a snowball marketing approach. Long after your in-house publicist has moved on to promote other books, you and your outside publicist can keep promoting your book through different channels.

7. Don’t Beat Yourself Up. It’s easy to despair (especially if you’re spending money on publicity) when your efforts seem to come to nothing. But don’t beat yourself up over it. You can’t know which promotions worked and which didn’t. Sometimes the payoff is down the line, and a lot of what ultimately happens with your book sales will boil down to luck. The important thing is to be in all of the places where luck can strike.

What Does Your Book Cover Say?

Haven Lake_FC

I imagine it isn’t easy to be an art director at a big publishing house like Penguin Random House. You get descriptions of books by the dozen and have to sort through images and fonts, colors and, well, “feel,” for lack of a better word, to try and provide a cover that tells a story–and, ideally, a story that evokes the words beyond the cover.

As a contemporary fiction writer with New American Library/Penguin, I provide a synopsis of the book to their art department, just as indie authors must do for independent book cover designers. Then I hold my breath to see what the art department conjures up. Will the cover be “me?” More importantly, will it honestly represent the emotions and story I’ve put on the page and attract readers? This is important, because people really DO judge books by their covers, and will only pick up books with covers that intrigue them if they’re in a bookstore. Likewise, they’ll only click on those postage stamp links on Amazon if they find something about a cover that speaks to them as readers.

In the case of my first book, THE GERBIL FARMER’S DAUGHTER, the first cover for the hardback (I was with a division of Random House for that one), the art department came up with a cute idea: gerbils sitting inside a pair of green farmers’ boots. For the paperback version, however, they changed the cover dramatically. That book has a little girl running through an orchard under a bright blue sky–nothing to do with the book. Absolutely nothing, especially since the book is a memoir and the little girl is definitely not me. Their rationale? They wanted a book WITHOUT rodents on the cover, since some women apparently don’t care for small animals that look like rats, and they wanted a bright image so Target stores would carry it. I wasn’t in love with the idea, but it worked. Hats off to the marketing department for coming up with a cover that captured the “feel” of the memoir (happy, light) and would draw an audience.

For my first novel with NAL/Penguin, THE WISHING HILL, I loved the cover immediately. It has a picture of a little girl blowing dandelion seeds and is a literal depiction of a pivotal scene in the book. I had asked for this image and sent them suggestions, and they delivered–with the added perks of gorgeous paper and colors.

My second novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, is a family mystery based on a true story, and a very emotional story at that, about three sisters searching for a brother they never knew they had. The first cover showed three sisters walking together on a beach peppered with roses beneath a bright blue sky. It was all wrong, both in fact and feel. There are no beach roses growing along this particular island, the three sisters would never have walked together in the book because their relationship was too turbulent, and the sky was too bright and happy for the story. I asked them to go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and the next cover was much better. Still pretty–a woman with her back to the camera, a gorgeous sunrise over the ocean in plum and pink and blue–but with a hint of darkness. I love it.

Now, with HAVEN LAKE, the novel scheduled to be published in April 2015, the art department hit a home run and came up with a cover that really is “me” as a writer of tense, emotional family mysteries. The cover is beautiful, but evocative of loss, love, and hope–just like the story I’m telling. Now I’m more excited than ever to finish the book as I start writing the last chapters this month, in preparation for delivering the manuscript to my editor in July.

Many thanks to New American Library/Penguin; to my savvy editor, Tracy Bernstein; and especially to cover designer Mary Ellen O’Boyle for capturing the essence of HAVEN LAKE in a single haunting image.

What about you? Do you have a favorite book cover? Share it with me!