Category: public appearances

Virtual Tour of a Virtual Book

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This month, I’m going on an actual trip with my actual family of squishy little humans, the first proper vacation we’ve had in several years. I will bring a real book made of paper, and read it with my eyeballs while sipping a tropical cocktail and raking sand with my newly-pedicured toes.

I’m also going on a trip next month, but not really. There will be people there, but not really. And there will be books, but not really.

Allow me to explain.

Next month’s trip is a virtual audiobook blog tour kindly organized by Jess the Magnificent at Audiobookworm. The way it works is, Jess sends virtual copies of my audiobooks to reviewers and bloggers who agree to post reviews, interviews, excerpts, and other content on their blogs on certain dates. As the author, I make the rounds on social media and online, commenting and interacting with each blogger on the assigned day. No actual anything changes hands at any point. None of us ever meet in person. The reviewers never hold a copy of my book in their hands. We are living in the future, people.

For both kinds of trips, prep is key. On the blog tour, all the content has to be requested, created, and shared on a strict timetable for the tour to run smoothly. So while I’m frantically trying to make sure that we’ve packed swim diapers, sunscreen, and a bunch of those little pouches of pureed fruit that are like baby crack for the actual trip, I’m also trying to prepare Top Ten lists, photos, and publicity blurbs for the blog tour. Even with Jess as my virtual travel agent, creating a two-week digital trip is almost as exhausting as planning a family holiday that will please both my toddler and my teenager. (Both kids like sleep and melted cheese, so I’m building our itinerary around those things).

I’m SUPER excited about both trips, and I hope you will come along. On the virtual one, that is. You are totally not invited to the beach.

Word architects

After a long hiatus, I finally started working on a novel again this month. With apologies to all the very patient Lindsay Harding fans, I haven’t started working on the next chaplain mystery. Instead, I’ve begun revising the manuscript for the middle-grade adventure novel I wrote a few years back in the hopes that I can submit it to agents in the fall. It feels good to be back in the saddle!

During this fallow period in which the sum total of my finished writing projects consisted of a single 1,500 word short story, something surprising happened. I’ve been offered two really cool opportunities to put on my Author Hat© and do Cool Author Things©. In my experience, that doesn’t usually happen. I’ve found that if I don’t promote the heck out of my books, attend conferences, and crank out new material, my sales dwindle to a trickle and my Author Hat© gathers dust in its metaphorical closet. Luck was on my side the past few months, though!

jeriandmindy
Celebrating with Jeri Rogers, Literary Editor of Artemis Journal at LitFest Pasadena.

Cool thing No. 1: I got to go to LA and be fancy in a room full of extraordinarily talented people. That 1,500 word short story I mentioned above won the Artemis-Lightbringer “Women hold up half the sky” competition for science fiction with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. My story received dual publication in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in addition to a cash prize from Hollywood NOW. You can check out my story in the 2018 edition of Artemis or hear it performed by actor and filmmaker Kamala Lopez, recorded live at LitFest Pasadena a few weeks ago. My story starts around minute 57. There’s also a little awards ceremony at the end where I give an impromptu, margarita-fueled speech.

Cool thing No. 2: I’ve been invited to go to one of my favorite places in the world, the Outer Banks, and give a book talk on Saturday, September 29th. Here’s how that whole thing came about. My friend Pam is an innkeeper. Kind of an 18th-century throwback job, huh? She keeps inn (inn-keeps?) at the White Doe Inn in Manteo on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She recently started up a series of evening arts events and, knowing that A Death in Duck is set near there, she invited me to come give a book talk as part of the series. I said yes before she even finished inviting me.

Both of these unexpected wonderful opportunities reminded me of something. When you publish something or otherwise put your writing out into the world, you lose control of where that writing goes or how it will impact people. Being a writer is kind of like building a house. You may build that house for a specific client or with a clear vision for who will inhabit it. But years, decades, or, if you’re incredibly lucky, centuries later, that house could be roughly the same. Or maybe it will have undergone a complete renovation or maybe it’ll be a crack den. Once you hand it over to the world, you can’t control who lives there or what they do.

The same is true of writing. People’s reactions can be scary or disappointing, like when a series of negative reviews from homophobes blights your book’s Amazon page (the literary equivalent of a crack house?). But they can also be thrilling and encouraging, like when you get to travel to both coasts within the space of a few months to share your work. Not bad for an unproductive year.

Mindy Quigley in Space!

I got word a few weeks ago that my short story “Equality Day” was selected as the winner of the 2018 Women Hold Up Half the Sky Award, sponsored by Artemis Journal, Light Bringer Project & the Hollywood Chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The contest required me to write a science fiction story with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. I’ve never attempted anything even remotely like this. Though I did manage to birth an infant, launch a child into middle school, and have my kitchen renovated, 2017 was a spectacularly unproductive year for me in terms of writing. For most of the year, I’d felt all but brain-dead. However, when a writer friend sent me the contest details, I could feel my long-stilled creative juices begin to softly burble.

I’ve written before about how I tend to approach writing like a project to be managed. The contest had a very concise 1,500 word limit, which made it feel like a do-able project. I didn’t have to try to snap my sleep-deprived synapses into shape in order to knit the details of an entire novel together. I just had to maintain concentration for a few hours at a time. Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image

 

Even still, the road to triumph was paved with many false starts and deleted pixels. When I begin a short story, I almost always start with an idea that’s WAY too big for a short story. That was even more true with “Equality Day,” where the story I wanted to tell had enough detail for at least three feature-length films. The world I pictured had achieved a veneer of social equality by eliminating all outward signs of gender. I didn’t want it to be hard-core scifi (no spaceships, no time travel, no blue-skinned creatures sporting ray guns). But despite the similarities to our own world, the story remained stubbornly unwieldy and enormous, and there seemed to be no way to make it smaller. To make matters worse, I had next-to-zero time to sit down and start working through my ideas on paper.

Weirdly, the fact that baby-rearing gave me so little time to write improved the story. What I lacked in computer time, I made up for in many nights of half-conscious cogitation. Throughout November and into December, while I was nursing my son, I kicked around ways to bring the story under control. Late one night, with my little son suctioned to me like a remora fish, a vision dawned on me–a little child who lived in a genderless world, seeing a woman for the first time. Before I slipped back in bed that night, I jotted down what became the first sentence in “Equality Day”:

The first time I saw a woman, I must’ve been about five.

That sentence gave me what I needed to get started. A few furious drafting sessions and many edits later, I’d managed to tell the story I’d wanted to tell, in only 1,468 words.

Look out for “Equality Day” in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in early May. And look out for me at LitFest Pasadena where the story will be read on stage by a celebrity guest on May 19, 2018!

Here’s to not barfing in abject terror

I have a confession to make. I am terrified of public speaking. If you’ve seen me give a talk or a reading, it may come as a surprise to know I am secretly so petrified of talking in front of people that I would do just about anything to avoid it.

It wasn’t always that way. When I was in high school, I was in plays and musicals. I acted in a storytelling troupe that twice won the state championships and performed in front of a crowd of nearly a thousand people. I gave a speech in a packed auditorium to 500 graduates and their families. But when I went to work, mostly in administrative roles, I didn’t have cause to speak in public again for nearly twenty years. Three years ago, however, I took a new job that required me to give talks regularly. I also started finding success as a writer, and began to receive invitations to do readings and workshops. The horror! The HORROR! ALL CAPS CANNOT DESCRIBE THE HORROR!

But in swooped medical science to save the day. Now, I can get up on stage in front of a dozens or even hundreds of people, smiling, confident, shoulders relaxed, nary a wobble in my voice. My secret? I’m not me. I’m My Best Self. My Best Self can talk to people without the filter of terror that used to cloud the space between me and my audience like a room-filling cataract. What allows Best Self Mindy to show up, and not Quaking with Terror Mindy? Drugs. My performance anxiety had been so pervasive that my doctor wrote me a prescription for beta blockers that actually says “For Public Speaking” right on the little orange bottle. About 30 minutes before I take the stage, I take a beta blocker, which tames the butterflies thrashing around in my tummy and keeps my heart from exploding out of my chest like that sharp-toothed, mutant E.T. in Alien.

You want to know the craziest part? When I had to give a talk in DC a few weeks ago, I didn’t need to take my miracle calming pill. I was fine. It’s not that I think the drugs were just some pill-shaped version of Dumbo’s magic feather. I needed the pills to tamp down my out-of-control physiological response. They controlled my surging stress hormones and convinced my brain it was safe to allow My Best Self to show up. But repeated practice has retrained my panic muscles so they aren’t set on a hair trigger anymore.

You can see the results of my “Vorsprung durch Technik” experience in the video footage of a public reading I did last fall. It was recently posted online by New River Valley Voices, a wonderful local arts organization here in Southwest Virginia. My short story, “The Four Questions,” starts around minute 7. I even sing a little. In Hebrew. In front of almost 100 people. If I’m clutching an invisible magic feather, who’s the wiser?

Little kids are pretty trippy

First, a confession. If it were socially acceptable, I would play with dolls every day.

Yesterday, I took part in the enormously fun Ask Big Questions “Living Library” event hosted by Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg Library. Each invited presenter represented a job the attendees (preschool and elementary school aged kids) might be interested in learning more about. The llama farmer, who’d brought an actual llama along with her, was tough to compete with, but I still got an enthusiastic crowd of pint-sized storytellers visiting my table.

My exhibit focused on writing and storytelling. Attendees could create their own stories using the characters including a small Barbie, a wizard puppet, a plastic donkey, a squishy frog, a creature made of shells, a Minion doll, and others. I also provided settings in the form of pictures of tropical islands, palaces, dark forests, etc. I’d created some ready-made story prompts, thinking some kids might be stuck for plot ideas, but the kiddos sure didn’t need those! They came up with dozens awesome stories all their own. One little girl even pulled out a purse full of Disney princess dolls and added them to the story. After all, what story couldn’t benefit from a purseful of princesses?

Making up stories with kids is a little like dropping acid or listening to one of this year’s presidential debates. If you just sit back and don’t think too much, the spectacle can be pretty amazing. The stories zigged and zagged in ways I never could’ve predicted. One minute, the wizard character was nice, teaching a class full of wannabe wizards how to fly. Another kid would take over the story and suddenly the wizard would be trapping the plastic donkey in a cave above a secret lagoon, trying to destroy all her kindness with his evil spells.

Here are a few of my favorite story lines:

Not all the kids who attended were able to read and write yet, but those who could were invited to write little mini stories to share with the world via my blog.

Today I am going to a birthday party!

The makings of a great adventure story, for sure. 🙂

It started in China. When I was a little girl when one day I got to go on the plane.

Intriguing, huh? Writing was still pretty new to this little one, but she clearly has a knack for writing a compelling hook.

When I grow up I want to be a zookeeper.

Zoos are great settings for stories. And given how interested this little person was in the animal characters, I’m sure zookeeping is a solid career choice.

One day, I was coming home from school when… OH! I forgot to introduce myself! I’m Shell Dog and I live on a tropical island. Well, back to the story.

I was coming home from school when a dozen six-foot tall Minions, led by Kevin, came up to me wearing bikinis.

“Do you want to go swimming with us?” asked Kevin.

“What the heck.” I said.

Eventually I decided to go swimming with them, and they were super nice. After that, I went swimming with them pretty much every day.

A fun story from one of the slightly older kids, inspired by the characters and settings I’d brought. I didn’t have to correct the punctuation or spelling at all. She even got the hyphen right! An English professor in the making?

The Four Questions

I’ll be reading this short story this afternoon at the Blacksburg Library, but for those who can’t make the reading, and who don’t have Montgomery County local access TV, and who can’t wait for it to be posted on the New River Valley Voices YouTube channel, here ’tis. A little more serious than my usual fare. Let me know what you think!

THE FOUR QUESTIONS
The news came on the day of the Passover Seder.

“Sorry, darling, but your father won’t be joining us,” < my mother said, planting a kiss on my cheek as I stepped into the hallway. A vodka martini dangled from her hand like a vestigial appendage. “He’s chosen to pass the holiday with Karen or Corinna or whatever this one’s name is. But on the upside, Tess has made Gefilte fish from scratch. Nothing like soggy fish balls to soothe the sting of betrayal, eh?” She arched a wry eyebrow.

As if on cue, my little sister, Tess, flew down the stairs. “Pretty wild, huh? We’re taking bets on whether this one will be older than me.”

Tess, obese, myopic, lovable, neurotic Tess, possessed little more than a half-completed Master’s Degree in Film Studies from UC-San Diego _ and myriad pollen allergies, but she’d recently decided to become an organic chicken farmer. She and her boyfriend, who’d inherited money, but not business acumen, from his father, had put in an offer on a 70-acre parcel in rural Mississippi, complete with coops for 35,000 laying hens. Their business plan was liberally peppered with phrases like “radical self-reliance” and included a strategy to feed the chickens on a diet rich in seaweed. To my knowledge, Tess has never touched a live chicken. We indulge her, of course. < Families are supportive. That’s what families do. Families indulge things.

But Tess is the youngest, and there are still no grandchildren, so even if she goes around spouting agricultural pronouncements like a poultry-specific version of the Oracle of Delphi, the finding of the hidden afikomen and the recitation of the Four Questions fall to her.

My older sisters, the twins, took the news about my father like cosmopolitan sophisticates, laughingly wondering how long it would be before Dad would announce that we had a new little brother or sister. They took their cues from our mother. For her, the zap of a joke could staunch the blood pouring from any wound, and a quick-witted retort could dispel unpleasantness with the swiftness of a magician’s wand. My mother’s eyes smiled along with the twins, but her mouth was sewn up into a tight button.

I alone, it seemed, was astonished by my father’s absence. To me, it seemed like some trick of the light that would be revealed as an optical illusion. “Ta-da!” someone would spring from the shadows and shout. “He was here all the time!” Instead, there was an empty chair next to Tess who was enthusiastically belting Mah Nishtanah, the Four Questions, like she was trying to stage a Hebrew rendition of Oklahoma!Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?” What is different, this night, from all other nights?

***

I got through dinner, even the homemade Gefilte fish, but after we got home, my husband found me in a sobbing heap, splayed next to the tub like an unmolded Jell-O.

“Come on, babe,” he consoled, bent low, hand on my back. “They’ve always been miserable. They were doomed from the start, like Romeo and Juliet, only without the stabbings or the sonnets or the suicides. Or the romance. Okay, not like Shakespeare, but you know what I mean.”

I shook my head. I knew he was trying to cheer me up, but I couldn’t even muster a smile. Fran and Benjamin Aaronson of Evanston, Illinois, passing their Seders separately for the first time in 33 years.

Puffy-faced and red-eyed, I dragged a toothbrush back and forth in my mouth, thinking of my own Four Questions.

Had my parents always been miserable? Probably. When they fought, the insults they hurled had a seemingly inexhaustible power supply, a nuclear arsenal, mutually-assured destruction. But their banter fed on the same fuel, igniting explosions of laughter that reduced them to tears and shook the very walls of our house.

Was my mother to blame at all? Most likely. Her ruthlessness as a public prosecutor was second only to her ruthlessness toward her liver, which she’d spent her life doing her best to pickle. And although my father could give every bit as good as he got, no doubt he could be forgiven for seeking out eyes that could look upon him without that unfocused glassiness.

And to what could I ascribe my father’s philandering, which was stitched into the very binding of their marriage? It wasn’t a midlife crisis—Nana Ruth once told me that it had always been this way, even when they were dating. And it had always seemed to me like a game he and my mother were playing together. Sure, the joke was sick, but I thought she was in on it.

As I climbed into bed next to my sleeping husband, it was a fourth question that planted itself in my mind and took root like a fast-spreading bamboo. Whatever they’d had, hadn’t it always been the same? For 33 years. Through four daughters. Through the death of my only brother, little Evan, the wispy candle flame of his life snuffed out before he even took his first breath. Through my father’s prostate cancer scare, hadn’t she tended him during the long months of treatment and recovery? Through my mother’s fear of flying, so paralyzing that when my Nana Ruth was dying, and mother had one of her panic attacks in the departure terminal at O’Hare, hadn’t he driven her through the night and day all the way down to Miami—26 hours—so she could be with her mother in the final hours? Hadn’t what they had been the same through my wedding the previous summer, when they had stood next to the chuppah, smiling and holding hands with habitual ease as Jason and I took our vows.

What is different, this night, from all other nights? I rolled the question around in my mind, trying to recall the moment when everything transformed. Some words, maybe? An insult too far? A joke that fell flat? If I could only find out what had changed things, I could use that knowledge to dig a firebreak around my own marriage. To keep the spark from catching, and burning my life to the ground.

How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery

On October 28th, I’ll be giving a talk at the Blacksburg, VA Public Library. “How to Write a Really Terrible Mystery (and HowHow to Write a Really Terrible Mystery Poster Not To)” will feature tips from my alter ego, Mandy Quagley. Below is a little sneak peek at the kind of colossally unhelpful advice Mandy will give to mystery readers and would-be mystery writers.

There will be lots of audience participation, and lots more terribly hilarious writing samples. Hope to see you there!

GO FOR THE SCOOBY DOO ENDING

Instead of laying cunning clues that lead your reader little by little toward the finale, withhold all information. I mean, this is a mystery, people! Be mysterious. You don’t want to give anything away. So at the end, dump all the information on your reader like a trash collector tipping his load into a fetid landfill.

Take one or more chapters right at the end to reveal in excruciating detail who committed all the murders and how they did it. Ideally, they should do this in one really, really long monologue while your protagonist is tied to a chair or something, but I know this isn’t always possible. A good rule of thumb is that this exposition should recap your entire book.

Here’s a quick example from The Weiner Schnitzel Conundrum by Mandy Quagley:

“Remember that jar of poisoned pickles in the first chapter?” Baron Otto Von Killerstein said, stroking his menacing goatee. “Well, they weren’t poisoned after all!  That character just had a heart attack, you fool! But actually that gave me the idea to poison those pickles in Chapter Five. The ones the other character ate.”

“You mean Count Nebulous Throckmorton died from eating poisoned pickles?” Juliette asked, her blonde curls quivering with fear.

Nine, he’s the one who got bitten by the snake. Don’t you remember? I just told you about the snake I trained specially to be attracted to the scent of mango chutney, and then I gave Count Throckmorton the mango chutney scented cologne?”

“Oh, oui. So it was Professor Leopold von Fingerschweitzen who ate the poisoned pickles.”

Nine! Think about it. Chapter Five? The one with the redhead and the hunchback?”

“Wait, you mean you and Bavaria Bumbersnickle were working together this whole time?” Juliette asked, her ample bosom jiggling with anxiety.

Baron Von Killerstein pulled back the cleverly fitted mask that covered his face. “I am Bavaria Bumbersnickle!”