Saturday, October 15, 2016

When The Ceiling Hits The Floor

The Hope-in-the-Mail house got torn down this week. 

I admit it--I cried.

Which was surprising to me. For most of the time we rented it, I just wanted to move. Mark has always said that we'd look back on the place as our honeymoon cottage, but after being crammed inside 400 sq. ft. with two kids and two dogs, after too many gunshots in the neighborhood and drug addicts on our porch, after recurring mold on the walls and leaks in the roof, I disagreed.  

When we finally moved out, other tenants lived there for a while, and then the house went vacant. Got boarded up. Sat for years, crumbling.

Somewhere along the line I started calling it the Hope-in-the-Mail house because it's the place we came up with that saying. It's the place we learned to let the manuscripts we'd mail off to New York buoy us through our workday. It's the first home our kids knew, and the place I wrote the first six Sammy Keyes. 

Shortly before demolition. That's the ceiling on the floor.
Mark and I went to witness the demolition. I don't know why. Maybe to say goodbye?

What I know for sure is, I would rather work from dawn to dusk building something than watch someone else's work be torn down. There's something terribly sad about seeing anything--even a crumbling house--destroyed. It brings into sharp focus how temporary our efforts, our accomplishments, our lives are.

The guy operating a skip loader recognized me. He's done work at the house we now live in. A house much different than the one he was tearing down.

I was already kinda weepy from watching the crew work. "You're probably wondering what my fascination with this house is," I sniffed."People who know where we live now usually jump to wrong conclusions. This is where we started."

He was surprised, but got it right away. "Did you live here with the kids?" he asked.

I nodded. "Until they were six and eight."

He smiled. "I may own my own business now, but when I was eight, I was a Chicklets boy."

"No kidding?" I asked, because if you've ever been just south of the California border you know exactly what that means. He's come a long way from that life--I'm imagining a real hope-in-the-mail story, one I plan to follow up on.

Mark and I left shortly after that. Neither of us wanted to watch any more. But after we got home I started kicking myself about the mailbox. 

Why didn't I take the mailbox? 

It was right there, bolted to the stucco wall of the porch. Ugly. Old. Metal. Full of spiders.

I wanted that mailbox!

I tried to track it down by phone but it was already gone, which is probably for the best. It's had a good life. A useful life. 

And really, in the end, it's not the stuff that matters. It's the intangible things we bring to a situation, and what we learn and take away. I learned a lot in that little house. About who I am and what I believe and what kind of person I want to be.

It's not the mailbox that's important.

It's the hope that flowed through it. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Going Off the Deep End

I kinda panicked when I discovered that the room in which I was to give a keynote last weekend had only a gooseneck microphone attached to a podium.

Please, no! my mind squealed.  I can't do the podium thing. I can't speak into a gooseneck. I need to move.

I'm really not cut out for public speaking. I was runner-up for shiest in my high school graduating class, right behind my good friend Sandy. I hide it pretty well now, but the truth is, not so far beneath the surface, I'm terrified of public speaking. Given the wrong conditions or the wrong crowd, my mind can freeze and when that happens, panic sets in, the shaking starts, and I become a quivering bundle of nerves.

You'd think a podium would help alleviate this. You'd think reading from notes would be a must. But the funny thing is, they just make it worse. They make everything worse.

If I can move, really move, then I'm okay. Or on the road to being okay. All those nerves have something to do. Someplace else to take me. It's why I can sing loud rock but literally choke singing ballads. Maybe I'm running away from my fears, trying to escape them long enough to forget how exposed I am. Maybe I'm running from the fact that I'm sharing stuff that's personal. Stuff that's painful.

I don't talk about things that don't matter to me. I also don't write about things that don't matter to me. Or for the money. To me, speaking in public or writing for publication is like taking a deep breath and a leap of faith off the high dive. I'm all in, and I'm trusting that there's water in the pool deep enough and wide enough to catch me.

The audience, they're my water.

I'm praying that they'll catch me, buoy me, save me from my dive.

A podium with a gooseneck mic is safe. There's a barrier between you and the audience. There's a place for notes and you can read from them, or use them as a crutch. You don't even actually have to know what you feel, what you think, or even what you're talking about. You just read.

Lots of speakers read. Or act out a part they play from their script. I understand why they do this. It's the safe, sane thing to do. And I have tried it, but every time it feels......fraudulent. Like I'm hiding. Like I'm not brave enough to take that big bounce and really dive in.

The conference tech did find me a hand-held mic. It was bashed in and old...but a beautiful sight. "Thank you!" I said, and then got on the stage. And for forty minutes I moved while I talked about things personal and formative and painful, and shared how they've managed to combine in me to create fertile beds for seeds of hope.

Afterwards, a friend said he'd seen lots of keynotes in his life, but never one like mine. He meant that in the best of ways, and I was grateful for the soothing effect his words had on my frayed nerves.

What I realized in that moment was that what I'm doing during a speech like that is trusting the audience. I trust them with my story, and in doing so, I trust them with my heart.

It's a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. Probably even foolish. But what I hope for, pray for, as I take that big bounce up into the air and spread my arms wide, is that the audience will catch me. That they'll understand that this is not easy or routine or pat. That I'm counting on them to hold me up, to see me through, and to take away the message I'm risking so much to convey.

And, ultimately, that's the reason I do this--the hope that the audience will take something useful away. Something that will make their life better. Something to give them hope, a new perspective, a reason to keep trying.

I realized today that this all also applies to my novels. I don't write from a formula. I don't stand behind a solid oak barricade of what's trending. I don't try to negotiate the shifting currents of critical review. I dive in with abandon, write from my heart, and trust that my readers will see beyond the flaws, understand the purpose, and take something useful away.

So please know that when you read one of my novels, I'm not just sharing words on a page.

I'm trusting you with the story.

I'm trusting you with my heart.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

And Then There Were Mugs

At last year's Central Coast Writers' Conference, I met a scriptwriter/ novelist named Doug Richardson. He was part of the impressively credentialed staff that was brought in from Los Angeles to help aspiring writers get up to speed on the hows of Hollywood. We were backstage waiting to go on for the opening night "keynote panel" when we were first introduced. 

I'm not well-versed in the whos of Hollywood, but even I had heard of some of movies on Doug's credits sheet--Die Harder, Money Train, and Bad Boys

It was an impressive resume, to say the least, but he didn't want to talk about himself or his work. He wanted to talk about Flipped.


Because it was his daughter's favorite book & movie. According to him, she was obsessed with it. 

Clearly, this guy was all right. Not just because he was so enthused Flipped, but because as the conversation unfolded it became obvious that he was a really caring dad. Doug is not a gushy guy. He actually acts all gruff and curmudgeonly. But when he talks about his kids, his wife, his family, that act becomes completely transparent. 

Anyway, last year the conference committee bestowed upon me the Lillian Dean Inspiration Award, and in exchange for my diamond-shaped trophy I was asked to give a short -- three minute or less -- acceptance "speech."

Since I was receiving an award for being inspiring, I tried to say something that would help the audience of aspiring writers continue on their quest for success--in whatever form that was for them. Encouraged to do so by my very supportive friend Wendy who loved the expression, I shared about putting "hope in the mail" and how I started using the phrase during the long rejection phase of my quest to be published. 

Afterwards, Doug told me all the reasons he loved the expression. A lot of people did. But after the conference, he stayed in touch with me and kept mentioning it, and even wrote a post for his very entertaining blog about it. 

Our son Connor is the one who saw a broader application for the expression. We were lucky to have him home for the summer between graduating college and relocating to Portland, and during that time, he took on the task of painting the Big Picture for me: Hope in the Mail could be an on-line home for people who needed inspiration--a place to go to hear about someone else's path through hard times in pursuit of their dreams. From written stories to podcasts to videoblogs, the site could collect stories from around the world and help lift the spirits of anyone who visited. 

There could also be mugs.

So now, a year after my first encounter with Doug--at our second CCWC conference together this weekend--I gave him a coffee mug and told him how his reaction to my little speech contributed to putting the wheels in motion. Today he posted this wonderful picture.

In addition to mugs we also have a fledgling website, which I hope you'll visit. Tell us your story, or tell us about someone you think would help others put hope in the mail. And sign up to get some e-hope yourself once we're truly in motion. Everyone needs a dose of hope once in a while, right? Go find it and give it at

As always, thanks for checking in--see you in the comments!

PS You can find this teddy bear of a curmudgeon (also known as Doug Richardson)...

...on social @byDougRich his website at, where you can also check out his books, including the Lucky Dey thrillers.  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Psychology of a Voice Artist

Welcome back, and happy Sunday! 

Listening Library's audio pub's w/the book on 10/25
This week we have the unique pleasure of hearing from JB Adkins, "the voice of Lincoln Jones." JB shares how he gets into the head of the characters he portrays as a voice artist, and how those characters can sometimes truly affect him. At the bottom of his piece you'll find an audio link to his dramatization of the first chapter of The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones, as well as ways to find out more about him.

Through this audio book process I've come to know JB as upbeat, professional and willing to work hard to give his very best. I hope you'll welcome him to our community. Everybody, meet JB!


 The Psychology of a Voice Artist

I’m always so nervous when faced with the opportunity to bring a new character to life! Who is this character? Who’s the author? What do they mean? Am I good enough? These are the questions parading through my mind the night before stepping into the booth to breathe life into a brand new character for the very first time.

It’s almost like trying to imitate someone that you’ve only spent one day with. What are their proclivities and habits? What makes them tick? This happens to be one of my favorite parts. Exploring the “tick.” Ticks are what make each and every one of us unique, and when it comes to the characters in The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones, they’re no different.

When discovering personalities in new characters, the best method to stumble on these ticks is to ask questions. Bold questions. In the case of Lincoln Jones, there were many intricate questions just due to the fact that Lincoln himself had so many layers. Why did he love writing? What made him so imaginative? Oftentimes, when dealing with real people, they’ll portray the best version of themselves until they feel comfortable enough not to anymore. In particular, once they’ve reached a point where they’re either satisfied with the value you’ve given them as a friend and colleague, or are simply uninterested in trying to impress you any longer, you’ll begin to notice the layers of humanity shrouded underneath their “best foot forward” persona. With characters, the psychology of why they do what they do and the way in which they interact with the people in their environment really shapes the way that the voice will come across in the final product. As a voice-over artist, it is pivotal to allocate a precious amount of your time probing the character(s) by figuring out their psychological makeup, while studying their uniqueness through the pages of the novel.

One of the other challenges of nailing the voice, especially in a YA fiction novel, is understanding the author’s reasoning and intent behind the creativity and words that they wrote. I personally have never really had the opportunity to connect with the author before delving into a character, and I think that’s largely a positive thing, simply due to the fact that being over informed about the character and intent may lend to a more mundane voice, with safer choices being made along the journey. Speaking of “safe,” boldness is one of the most integral aspects of bringing out the absolute best in a character. One must not be afraid to try new things, experiment with different voices, and “go there” in terms of pushing the boundaries of voice and style. The amazing thing about an audiobook is that it’s just you and the director. No camera crew, lights, grips, and gaffers to distract you by leaving you intrinsically nervous for fear of being judged by the multitudes. Just you, the character, and the director.

When reading Lincoln Jones, I was extremely privileged to have the honor of collaborating with award-winning director Linda Korn, who provided the most constructive feedback that I’ve ever received from a director. I believe this was due to Mrs. Korn’s innate understanding of the characters in the novel, along with her own deep connection to the events throughout. Linda is one of those directors who encourages “going there” for the sake of, not only the artist, but most importantly, the listeners. I think that being bold in ones choices for the sake of the listener is both a heartfelt and selfless choice that, in this case, only serves to enhance the lives of everyone who has the chance to be touched by Wendelin’s magnificent creativity and style.

Overall, in order to make the most of any opportunity to bring a new character to life, your environment, preparation, creativity, and confidence are some of the most important tools to have in your arsenal. You absolutely must read and reread the book in order to really understand the characters and know which questions to ask. You also must be self-aware, as this affects your level of confidence going into each session. How am I feeling today? Did I get enough rest? Do I have any more questions for the characters? Myself? Any insecurities or past experiences that are left unchecked will affect the way that you deal with the characters when reading. In this case, Lincoln Jones hit extremely close to home, with him being the product of a broken marriage, the subject of abuse, and having to move and interact in an environment where he lacked family or familiarity.  This could have struck a serious nerve with me, having been the product of similar circumstances, and subconsciously had an adverse affect on the way that I went about attempting to bring the characters to life, and interact with those in the book that touched on things that rendered me uncomfortable.

Without going too deep into the psychology, I think that being a creative, bold, yet effective voice-over artist really boils down to just that. Psychology. Understanding your own makeup and proclivities by remaining self-aware will not only aid you in gaining deeper understandings of the characters that you’re attempting to breathe life into, but will ultimately help you bridge the gap by making meaningful connections to the listening audience. I’m extremely grateful to Wendelin for the opportunity to share this amazing experience, and hope to have the privilege to team up with her again on one of her phenomenal works in the near future!

Click link to listen to JB performing Chapter 1 of The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones 

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. You can follow JB on social media here: 
Twitter - @jbthesuper
Instagram - @jbthesuper
Facebook -  direct link 

Or check out his website where you can get to know his unique and inspiring story and meet his beautiful family.

Have a good week--I'll see you in the comments!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lemonade, Anyone?

My sister told me once that I’m good at turning lemons into lemonade. Maybe I am, but I don’t do it consciously. No, Oh, wow, lemons! Let’s make lemonade! It’s more a survival thing. I think I do it because I don’t want the bitterness of a situation to linger, or sour me.

Regular readers of this blog will already know that my mother passed away about three years ago, and that the last two years of her life she was in a dementia-care facility, where Mark and I visited her nearly every day.

In the beginning, visits would take hours. There was no “slipping out” until she was ready for a nap. In the moment, she knew exactly what was going on, but half an hour after we left she wouldn’t remember we’d visited. Miles above a person’s looks or wealth or social standing, Mom valued their mind. She valued her mind.  It was really heart-wrenching to see hers slipping away.

Mom was never what one would call pliable. She was smart, strong-willed, and opinionated, and that didn’t change after her memory started failing. She could still throw zingers, tell you all the reasons you were wrong about something, and if she was of the opinion that she didn’t want a shower, it was no easy task to give her one. She was so stubborn about showers that I would often help a caregiver with the task, and we’d both emerge sweating and soaked.

I began bringing along Nick Bruel’s  Bad Kitty Gets a Bath on shower day and read it to her. She thought Bad Kitty was hilarious. “Don’t be a Bad Kitty,” I’d tell her when she’d screech like one in the shower, and it would give us a short reprieve from hearing how we were killing her “so unnecessarily!”

At first Mom could feed herself. She’d beg us to smuggle in salt. Or a juicy hamburger. “Rare! With lots of onions!” After a time, we began having to feed her, but there was still that feistiness inside. If there was a lump in the food, she’d stick out her tongue to show us the offensive morsel. I made the mistake of saying, “Mom, gross, just swallow it,” and she spit it at me, finishing off with a wicked grin.

I’ve seen my mom in a walker war with another resident, yelling and yanking from opposite ends. I’ve seen her flirt with a new roommate from her hospice bed, mistakenly thinking the new resident was a man. I’ve seen accidents of all manner, and listened to her whispers about her “arch-enemy” – a resident who she couldn’t remember why she hated, but boy did she ever hate her.

Mark was amazing with my mom. She gave him guff and he gave it right back, always with a laugh. She liked that. In him, she found her match—someone who was willing and able to spar, and wouldn’t get spun up by the things she did or said. He’s always been like that with her, and I appreciated it extra those last two years.

At some point during our visit with Mom—or if she happened to be asleep when we arrived—Mark and I took turns “doing the rounds.” We knew all the residents and they would light up when they saw us because we would hang out with them—visit for a bit or play a hand of cards. We’d also fetch their juice, console residents who were upset, or help out any way we could. Mark was the hit with one woman in particular, who would grab for his backside whenever he walked by. She was 92.

With all that time there, we got to know the caregivers, too. What a job. Lifting residents, changing their diapers, bathing them, doing their laundry, feeding them, mopping up their messes…all while trying to stay upbeat and calm when food or teeth or tempers went flying.

I think the best stories are born from experiences or witnessing things that have touched us on a deep emotional level. But being in the midst of my mother’s deteriorating state, I didn’t see the story here. It was just personal. Sad. Exhausting. Private.

It wasn’t until the week after she’d passed away and I was delivering a thank you lunch to the staff that I realized how much I had learned and felt during the two years my mother was in dementia care. And I started to see that maybe I could say thank you in a way more meaningful than a delivered lunch.

And so I cut the lemons open. Squeezed them. Added major cups of sugar, and stirred.

What poured out was The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones. The story of a sixth grade boy who has to spend his afternoons at a dementia-care facility where his mother works as a caregiver. Lincoln is who he is because his mother, Maribelle, is a composite of the people—the angels, really—who cared for my mother during the last two years of her life. There are other facets to the story, but what I hope shines through is that it's a tribute to caregivers--a way to encourage people to recognize the hard job they do. 

Lemonade, anyone?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Making of a Book Trailer

Last week I promised to share about the making of the book trailer for The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones. As I explained, the book touches on some serious things, but also has parts that are laugh-out-loud funny. 

So the question was, how do you weave story threads like escaping abuse, dealing with Alzheimer’s, and struggling to rise out of poverty with a zombie in a wheelchair, an admiral in undies, and a tattletale toilet?

(The rest of this post will make a lot more sense if you've seen the trailer, so if you haven't had a chance to yet, here it is--all 60 seconds of it: book trailer )

For starters, I'm glad I have "boys" around to help keep me on track with the boy perspective. And I'm glad my son Connor was able to apply that to the making of the Lincoln Jones trailer. 

Tattletale toilet?

Right up his alley.

What we used as a springboard was the text on the back of the advance reader copy (which I think will become the book's "flap copy"). And since that text is in the voice of Lincoln, I asked Listening Library (which was getting ready to record the audio book of Lincoln Jones) if the voice artist (JB Adkins) would be willing to record the book trailer script.  He was, and did, and his recording dictated the storyboard and became the thread that tied the whole project together.

Connor wanted to record as much original video footage as possible, so we scouted out locations and props that would support the storyboard. I borrowed a CPR doll from friends at the school where I used to teach, got a wheelchair, and headed for the bushes. 

Sounds like a Sammy Keyes caper, doesn't it?

Well, it was kinda like that. Pushing a CPR doll in a wheelchair through parks? Behind buildings at schools that were "closed" for summer break? Through a campground?

We got some funny looks and, yeah, got told to leave the school.

Same with the tattletale toilet. It was a total Sammy Keyes move. 

Done (shhh) at a Denny's.

(Their toilets were just better than ours, okay?)

We did have the courtesy to order two Grand Slams before doing the deed, but yeah, it was a total Sammy Keyes outing.

And yes, we cruised Goodwill. Connor kept telling me to be cool. Apparently I am not cool or sly when getting footage inside (or outside) of Goodwill. (Or, probably, ever.) He kept his distance. Made a lot of disapproving noises when I got too close. Ditched me.

What can I say? Crutches in a corner get me all excited.

Besides shooting footage in the field, Connor also did a very complicated conversion of some digital footage I'd taken over three years ago. He wanted to get that grainy effect of it being played on an old analog TV. So even though the "real zombie in a wheelchair" and the scene where Lincoln's talking about where he goes after school go by in a flash in the video, it took a long time to get that right.

We collected so much footage. Hours of it. (Do any of you recognize the graveyard scenes?) But in the end, a snip here, a snip there is all we used because Connor kept the focus on what kids like: short, fast, surprising, funny.... And he stressed that it's better to have someone want to see the video again than be bored of it by the end. 

Then, when it was all paced out the way he liked it, Connor recorded a guitar melody to round things out. The music gives a sense of movement forward which also contributes to how fast the video seems to fly by. 

In summary, I'd be lying to say it was easy, but it sure was fun! Connor's presently working on a book trailer for the reissue of Runaway--something I'll tell you about another day!

Next week (or sometime soon) I'm hoping I'll have a post for you from JB--"the voice of Lincoln Jones." I know I'm looking forward to hearing what it was like for him to get into the voice of Lincoln Jones and be behind the microphone, recording an audio book. Should be fascinating!

Until then, see you in the comments!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Zombie in a Wheelchair, Anyone?

Summer break is over, and it’s time I got back to blogging more regularly. I’ll shoot for the every-Sunday schedule I used to be on. I’ve missed hanging out with you here, so I hope you’ll check in when you can.

A lot’s been going on. I have Sammy reissue news (which I’ll get to in another post), new book news (which will be fun to give you first scoop on), and other stuff (which I can’t really talk about yet, but will as soon as I’m able—you know the drill).

Let me start by sharing that our son Connor graduated college in June with a degree in Business and spent the summer here with us before relocating to Oregon (where he’s off to a great start in the ranks of the employed). During the summer I was lucky enough to have him work on a variety of projects for me. Our biggest undertaking was book trailers.

A lot of people kind of go, Huh? when I mention ‘book trailer’ so if that’s you, just know that book trailers are a Thing, and have been for some time. They’re like a movie trailer, only, you know, for a book.

There’s a huge range of what book trailers are like. Some are big budget and look like movie trailers. Some are just Movie Maker images of picture book art with words on the screen. In children’s books the idea is basically either to a) get the appropriate age group interested in reading the book, or b) get adults who buy books for children / young adults interested in the book.

In schools, many teachers and librarians “book-talk” titles to the students. They pick a stack of books and give a quick summary of each story, trying to spark interest or help students determine which book(s) to check out.

In addition to book talking (or sometimes in place of it) educators will show book trailers to get the kids excited. Book trailers can be beautiful, intriguing, funny, or a total snooze. It’s pretty amazing, the variety.

They’re also all over the map length-wise. It depends on the age / maturity of the viewer, of course, but I’m a believer in shorter being better (and I suspect that the teachers/librarians showing the trailers would agree).

Sometimes publishers will put together a book trailer for a title, but as with much in book promotion these days, the onus often falls upon the author to create one. If you think a book trailer is going to help your book, you’ll likely have to pull one together yourself. Because picture books are illustrated, you’ve got a lot of visuals to work. With a novel? That’s a whole different story.

The way Connor developed a vision for a trailer for my upcoming novel, The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones, was by making me talk about the book. Even though he already knew, he asked me to describe to him what the book is about, why I wrote it, how it affected me, what I saw as its purpose in the world…things like that.

When he was done nudging answers out of me, he determined that we needed to do two trailers. One of me talking—like I just had with him, and another that would capture the interest and imagination of the primary audience: 4th- 6th graders.

Yes, that's the Tattletale Toilet on screen.
The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones is a story about some serious things. Like escaping abuse, dealing with Alzheimer’s, and struggling to rise out of poverty. But it’s told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy and has chapter titles like “Tattletale Toilet,” “Zombie in a Wheelchair,” “The Admiral in Undies,” “One-Eyed Jack,” and “Hush Money Trouble.”

How do you effectively reduce such disparate elements to a one-minute video?

The answer is not short, and it’ll only makes sense once you watch the trailer. So I’ll end here with a link to the book trailer and return next Sunday with some stories about getting the footage (which, yes, includes a “zombie in a wheelchair.”)

So here are the links! At the end of the book trailer you’ll see a video insert for the interview trailer—me talking about why I wrote Lincoln Jones. I hope you’ll watch both and tell me what you think.

It’s good to be back. Thanks for visiting. I’ll see you in the comments!