Joyful Noise: Lessons Learned from the Yam Girl.

IMG_2069 “Yams? I don’t want yams!” The woman ahead of me yelled at the cashier of my local grocery store. “I want sweet potatoes.” She slammed down a plastic bag and got in the cashier’s pale face. “And I want them now.”

I checked my watch and bit the inside of my mouth until I tasted blood. I was late and my arms hurt from holding two bakery boxes of muffins and a half-gallon of orange juice.

All of the self-checkout lanes were getting their yearly computer upgrades and I was in the “10 items and under” lane which had a short conveyor belt I couldn’t reach yet. So I kept my gaze on a nearby flyer. White paper with black letters that had two words.

Joyful Noise.

“But these are sweet potatoes,” the soft-spoken cashier said. “They are the same thing.”

“Yams are not sweet potatoes,” said the woman I’d just dubbed Yam Girl. “I am a certified organic chef and I want to see your manager.”

“He doesn’t come in until noon.”

Everyone is certified for something these days.

Yam Girl glared at me.

Had I said that out loud? 

Whatever. I didn’t have time for this. I was on my way to a meeting. A meeting for my best friend who’d died days earlier. A meeting to plan her funeral. So I sent back my best death stare.

Bring it, Yam Girl.

Yam Girl went back to abusing the cashier, with a few choice cuss words thrown in, until the bagging man/bouncer came over and asked her to leave. At his arrival, Yam Girl huffed and puffed and went away.

Thank goodness.

To read more, please join me over at the Firebirds 2012 Golden Heart Blog or click here to read more.  Continue reading

Be Strong. Be Brave. Be Dauntless.

This morning, March 14, 2014,  I was asked to say a few words about Karen Johnston, my dearest friend and critique partner who recently passed away from brain cancer. I’m humbly posting it here for all those who wanted to be there for Karen but were unable to make it. If you’d like to leave a comment, I will forward it on to Karen’s family. I know they will be grateful.KEMJ picture_cropped (JPEG)Nine years ago, I stood in Starbucks with a latte in one hand and my laptop case in the other, eyeing two empty seats near the window.

And I hesitated.

The last two free chairs were flanked by sketchy-looking men. The one on the left, in black jeans, dirty boots and leather jacket, was working on his laptop with files and a motorcycle helmet spread out on the empty table next to him.

So, to sit there, I’d have to ask him to move his things.

The other man, to the far right, was dressed in black jeans and T-shirt. Some biker with a long braid and devil eyes, serious tattoos on serious biceps, and a killer smile whose only purpose was to show off his gun-metal lip piercings. 

My arms ached from holding my bag, and I hesitated, wondering if I should go home. Except I held a ceramic mug instead of a TO-GO cup. So I was stuck.

“Be strong.” The words came from behind as a woman swept past me. “Be brave,” she whispered in a lovely British accent. She was wrapped in a sparkly purple scarf, pink dangly earrings, and bright red hair.

She glanced back with an I-dare-you smile, balancing a pink laptop bag and a ceramic mug.

At least I wasn’t the only paper cup snob.

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She sat next to the pierced man while I stood, still hesitating.

Once she settled herself, she looked at me, raised her mug, and winked.

And curiosity won over fear. With a determined nod, I asked the motorcycle man to move his things and sat next to this fascinating woman. We put our bags between us, said a shy hello, and opened our laptops.

Over the next few weeks, we’d see each other, save seats for each other, even order drinks for each other. Always in ceramic mugs.

Many of you knew Karen as the extroverted, vivacious woman who lived passionately. But that wasn’t the woman I sat next to, week after week.

Although we quickly established an easy rapport, writers have an inherent need for quiet and privacy while they work, lest the perfect words slip away.

As we got to know each other, we watched each others’ bags when we needed a break, made outrageous observations about the regular customers, and I learned new words like loo, knickers, and snog.

We developed an unspoken working relationship. We’d write for an hour, chat for 15 minutes, then go back to work.

We even used a timer.

Yet, during this time, we never shared our words.

Then came the deeper learning. We talked about our story ideas, bonded over our similarities: Both married, with children in the same school and swim team, and both had lost our fathers.

Finally, one day after the timer went off, Karen leaned over and asked, “Are you brave?”

Since I’d just gotten another rejection that morning I responded, “Not very.” I’d hit a point in my writing journey where I was getting rejected regularly and had no idea how to move forward.

Karen lowered her voice. “Would you like to be critique partners?”

I hesitated, again, slightly stunned. Asking another writer to share words is like asking someone to watch your baby. Saying yes requires a level of trust in the partner’s motives, their skill, their passion.

But looking at Karen with her crazy red hair and infectious laugh, I said, “Okay.” Then gave a firmer, more committed, “Yes.”

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What followed were years of sharing words, advice, and dreams.

Yet, while Karen changed literary agents like most women change shoes, I hesitated.

Since my queries to agents often went unanswered, and those that responded did so with a polite “No, Thank You”, I’d stopped the querying process.

It was too hard, too painful. To which Karen would always say, “Remember, Sharon. Be strong. Be brave.”

So I continued to write and query, as Karen cheered me on.

Years passed, we completed manuscripts, and other CPs including Stephanie, Christine, Pintip, Mary, and Danielle joined us, and some moved away. But we persevered with Karen leading the charge for us all, “Be strong,” she’d say. “Be brave.”

Seven years after we met, I went to Atlanta for a writing conference and was offered representation by my dream agent, an agent Karen had urged me to query even though I was afraid.

I texted her after dinner, “Deidre Knight of the Knight Agency asked to represent me. And I said yes!”

To which she replied, “Smashing! We’ll celebrate with lunch at the Clifton Café.”

I read the text quickly, trembling with excitement, barely noticing that most of her words were mis-spelled.

Darn auto-correct. 

I came home with an assignment to revise my current manuscript. A manuscript Karen loved. A manuscript she couldn’t wait to help me finish.

Those first few weeks, leading up to December 2011, were some of the happiest we had together. Her middle-grade books were doing well, and she’d sold a third. She’d chosen a new agent for her women’s fiction books and was looking for one to represent her young adult novels.

We worked every day, both of us driven and fearless, full of hope for the future.

“Be strong,” she’d say. To which I replied, “Be brave.”

We tore apart our manuscripts, came up with prologues, ditched characters, added new ones. After years of struggling and learning our craft, we were moving forward.

Even our other critique partners were finding success.

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Yet, there was one problem. Karen was mis-spelling words in her critiques, getting confused between her manuscripts. And when she asked me to read a query to a new agent for her YA novel, I told her I thought something was wrong.

Her queries, one of her greatest strengths, were flawless. But this one was filled with missing words, bad spelling, and she’d even given the wrong title of the book she wanted to sell.

She told me she was just tired. But I wasn’t so sure. And the pit in my stomach agreed.

Christmas came and went, winter set in and that sickening sensation in my stomach grew larger, almost choking me. So I wasn’t surprised when I got the call that she’d been sent to the hospital. Mary and I rushed over, only to hear words no one should hear outside a horror novel.

Brain tumor. Inoperable. Terminal.

We struggled to stay positive, teased her because her accent had thickened, brought her flowers.

When Mary and Jim went outside to talk to a nurse, I took Karen’s hand and said, “Remember, Karen. Be strong.”

“Remember, Sharon,” she said with a smile that denied the truth. “Be brave.”

And in that moment, she set the course for how she’d fight this disease. With strength and courage. After all, she had a husband and children she loved more than her own life.

And I’d agreed to help, to be there always.

Over the next two years, we struggled to keep her world as normal as possible. We went to lunch at the Clifton Café, shopped at All That Glitters, and still we worked. On my manuscript and her YA novel. We were both desperate to finish.

Yet, as her disease worsened, our manuscripts stalled. How does one write words when there are no words that suffice? How does one write words when the words themselves are too painful?

The cancer first stole her ability to type. And as it murdered her tomorrows, it took her vision, then her voice.

Still, she insisted we work.

When I admitted my second revision was a complete failure, she gave me a fierce glare. “Be strong,” she ordered. “Be brave.”

I just swallowed hard and said, “Yes, ma’am.” For some reason that always made her smile.

Just as our communication options died, my daughter gave me a YA book she’d read and loved. Divergent by Veronica Roth.

Divergent is a dystopian novel about a sixteen-year-old girl who must make a series of difficult and scary choices in order to survive.

Knowing how much Karen loved YA books, I started reading it to her aloud.

As I sat next to her bed, I’d read and keep one hand on her shoulder. When she moved, it meant she wanted to say something, critique the plot, complain about the characters.

In the book, the heroine Tris lives in a world divided into five factions. And she has to choose a faction in which to spend the rest of her life. In order to do this, she’s given a test. But when the test fails, proving Tris is Divergent and therefore and enemy of the state, she must make a blind choice and pretend she’s normal.

She leaves her family’s faction committed to peace and selflessness and joins a paramilitary faction known for strength, bravery, and recklessness. A faction in which she could hide and learn to protect herself.

A faction called Dauntless.

Except, after she chooses, she learns that if she fails her Dauntless initiation, she will be thrown out and become factionless. Which means homeless, hungry and alone.

As Karen and I read Tris’s story, we were both drawn deeply into her world, a world that required a level of courage that Tris wasn’t even sure she possessed. And every time Tris made another difficult choice, a choice requiring a courageous action, Karen would move her shoulder.

In her own way, she was reminding me to be brave. And I’d remind her she was my perfect role model.

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The weeks went by, Karen slept more and more each day, but still I read. We were both determined to stand by Tris, hoping she’d survive.

Then, three weeks ago while I was reading , Karen said in the clearest voice I’d heard in months, “Talk about the book”.

While she fought to get the words out, we talked about the story arc and Tris’ character.

Suddenly, she grabbed my hand. “How’s yours?”

I sucked in a breath. She knew that in December, after I’d finished the third revision on my manuscript, I’d ditched 80,000 words. 80 percent of the book. And I told her the truth, “not so great”.

She squeezed my fingers. “Be strong.”

I squeezed back, “Be brave.”

“No!” she said firmly. “Be dauntless.”

Those were the last words she said to me.

I went home that night and tore apart my outline, again, Karen’s words carved into my heart, but a question cut into my soul.

How does one stand strong in the face of such suffering?

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If I had realized how scary the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized how fragile the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized how desperate the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized the extent of the world’s suffering, I would have chosen a different profession, a different path, I would have chosen to hide. And I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized the world’s woes have the winning advantage, that it’s much easier to stay afraid, to run away, to give up on dreams, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized that a choice between two sketchy men would lead me to one of the greatest friendships of my life, I wouldn’t have hesitated that day in Starbucks. I would have run to my seat and saved the other for the red-headed woman who changed my life.

If I had realized, If I had realized . . . I would have written about it sooner.

So how DOES one stand strong in face of such suffering?

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By remembering Karen’s perfect example.

Karen’s wish for us all, Karen’s parting gift, Karen’s last words.

Be strong. Be brave. Be Dauntless.

All photographs courtesy of Sharon Wray and Mary Lenaburg.

Carey Baldwin Confesses All!

Today at Kiss and Thrill, I am so excited to host our very own Carey Baldwin and her brand new psychological thriller CONFESSIONI’ve just finished reading it and CONFESSION is AMAZING. It kept me up all night so just be prepared for a very tired “next day”.

CONFESSION is available at: AmazonBarnes and Noble, and iTunes

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To get us started, here’s the chilling blurb:

They say the Santa Fe Saint comes to save your soul—by taking your life.

 Newly minted psychiatrist Faith Clancy gets the shock of her life when her first patient confesses to the grisly Saint murders. By law Faith’s compelled to notify the authorities, but is her patient really the Saint? Or will she contribute to more death by turning the wrong man over to the police?

Faith is going to need all her wits and the help of a powerful adversary, Luke Jericho, if she’s to unravel the truth. But she doesn’t realize she’s about to become an unwitting pawn in a serial killer’s diabolical game. For once he’s finished with Faith, she’ll become his next victim.

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To read more, please join us over at Kiss and Thrill or click here to read below. Continue reading

Forget Me Not with Heather Ashby

Today I am so pleased to welcome Heather Ashby, a 2012 Golden Heart sister as well as an award-winning romantic suspense author, to Kiss and Thrill!

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After the successful debut of her first book Forgive & Forget, Heather has just released the second book in her “Love in the Fleet” series, Forget Me Not, to even more acclaim. And I heard a rumor that she’s also brought along Forget Me Not’s sexy hero Sky Crawford. I can already tell he’s a flirt!

SW: Welcome, Heather! I loved this book and am not surprised to hear all sorts of wonderful buzz about this story, the hero, and especially the villain. Can you share the blurb without giving away too much?

HA: Thanks, Sharon, for inviting me back to Kiss and Thrill!

Here’s the blurb for Forget Me Not: Suffering from survivor guilt, playboy Navy Seahawk pilot Sky Crawford swears he’ll never marry, unsure he deserves happiness—besides there are too many hot chicks to choose from.

War widow and veterinarian Daisy Schneider swears to love only animals after her Marine pilot husband is killed in Afghanistan—but work fails to ease her loneliness or the guilt that she might have saved him. The last thing she needs is a sweet-talking, fast-playing military pilot in her life.

Between a fiery battle with drug runners at sea and one stray, matchmaking Siamese cat, the fur flies in Forget Me Not as Sky and Daisy learn about life, love, and second chances.

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SW: I know this is your second book but can you tell me about this amazing Romantic Suspense list Forgive and Forget is on?

HA: I was stunned when Suspense Magazine voted my debut novel, Forgive & Forget, to their “Best of 2013” list for Romantic Suspense with Linda Howard, Allison Brennan/Laura Griffin, and Sandra Brown. This was beyond my wildest dreams.

SW: I am so happy for you, and the award is much deserved. In researching the cocaine trade, how difficult was to come by the information? Were you afraid of ending up on someone’s list?

 HA: I did wonder if the FBI was going to come for me after reading my Google search history or seeing what I checked out of the library. While packing for a wedding in St. Petersburg, Florida, my normally sweet husband pulled my current reading material from the suitcase, got in my face, and exclaimed, “No, you are not going to sit around the pool at the Don Cesar Hotel reading How to Smuggle Cocaine for Profit and Fun.

 SW: I don’t blame him! Did the reality of the drug world scare you?

HA: Yes, the above book was written by a drug lord to show just how easy it is to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. In addition to reading about the “selling of souls for profit,” I was shocked at what growing and processing cocaine does to the environment. Besides the slashing and burning for more farm land to grow coca, millions of liters of caustic chemicals, including pure gasoline, are dumped into rivers and jungles.

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 SW: How did you get a Navy helicopter pilot to help you with the writing/authentication? Can you tell me a bit more about him/her?

 HA: Oh, it was definitely a him, and didn’t he look hot in that flight suit! Oops, did I type that out loud? Seriously, he is the dad of a former student of mine. And I was thrilled to learn that he’d always wanted to write a thriller, but didn’t know where to start. So he enjoyed adding his two cents worth, along with authenticating scenes, especially cockpit dialogue and actions, and the drug interdiction/firefight. We even added in a character based on his best friend, a naval aircrewman who perished in a flight accident. Petty Officer Billy Quinn is honored in the story and on our dedication page.

 SW: Your books are known for their realism. What extra lengths did you go to do research?

HA: The Navy invited me to go through their Seahawk helicopter flight simulator. They said: “We are so thrilled that someone is going to write about what our pilots and crews do to make the world a safer place, we will help you in any way we can.” Although it was all simulated, it was 100% realistic – including movement. I sat in the pilot’s seat and my “co-pilot” (another cute pilot in a flight suit) guided me to land our helo on the flight decks of various sized ships, including a frigate which has a postage stamp-sized deck. Then they had me do it “at night” and “during a thunderstorm.” Next they set up the drug runner scenario I would be writing about. I got to fire warning shots on a “go-fast” – a speed boat – while it evaded interdiction by zigzagging. Since the mules did not cease and desist, I next got to pick off their “$100,000 engines” with lasers, one by one until they were DIW, dead in the water. After that, my co-pilot let me fire three Hellfire missiles! (No, not at the drug runners.) And finally, they had me experience a tail rotor failure, which throws a helicopter into a violent spin – and might, just maybe, happen in the book . This was one of the most exciting days of my life!

 SW: Tell me about your “Villain”.

 HA: The villain in Forget Me Not is cocaine. Through interwoven chapters, the reader follows the journey of the cocaine from harvest to processing to the mules who transport it in go-fasts to the distributer. Various characters are introduced, such as a drug lord, his son who has a conscience, the manager at a processing plant, and a go-fast captain, but they are only there as a means of guiding the villain – the cocaine – on to the next step in its journey.

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SW: Was writing this book harder than the first? Was it a revision of an older book?
This book was way easier than Book 1, because I knew what I was doing. I had no idea about writing a novel when I wrote Book 1, which means it was re-written five times over before being published. I actually wrote Book 2 with the Golden Heart in mind, ensuring lots of voice in the beginning as opposed to the backstory that had been in Book 1. I also wrote it around a hook at page fifty. I was very excited when Book 2 was named a Golden Heart finalist. (Original title: Cat On A Hot Steel Flight Deck.)

SW: As we’re talking, an incredibly handsome man has walked in. And since Heather has prepared me, I’m pretty sure that killer smile and sexy wink belongs to Sky Crawford, the luscious hero of Forget Me Not. “So, Sky, what was the first thing you thought when you met Daisy? (be honest!)”

Sky: If you want me to be honest, how about go right to the source? Here’s my reaction when I first saw Dr. Daisy at her vet clinic.

Attention on deck. All hands man your battle stations. Hot. Chick. Alert.

Sky’s brain flipped over to autopilot. Left eye did the ring finger check. No rings. Good sign. Right eye—hey, something was wrong here. His right eye knew it was assigned breast patrol, but it couldn’t seem to move past her blond hair swept up into some kind of barrette thingy. Hair that screamed for him to pull out the clip so he could watch the flaxen mass come tumbling down, like the walls of Jericho. Then both eyes got too lost in her pale blue ones to even consider glancing lower.

Mayday. Mayday. Losing focus fast. Send reinforcements.

Peripheral vision was called in as backup and the situation report said any woman that looked this good in a pair of scrubs must be some mighty fine booty.

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SW: I’m surprised she even talked to you. What was it about Daisy that changed things for you? 

Sky: She didn’t put up with my BS. But since I love it when desirable women play the hard-to-get card, I wasn’t about to give up the chase.

SW: Was there ever a moment when you had to choose between Daisy and the final showdown with the drug runners?

Sky: Yeah, but that would be a spoiler, sweetheart.

SW: Your story involves your ongoing recovery from PTSD. Can you tell us how Daisy helped you in your recovery?

Sky: She made me acknowledge that I might have some…you know…issues…and I might have to…um…get some help. Okay, so she threw my a** out until I actually got help.

SW: What help did you give Heather in her ongoing research into your world of Navy pilots?

Sky: I suggested she work out at the base gym on the Navy base. See, if she goes around 11 AM and uses a certain treadmill, she can watch all the hot guys in uniforms walk by on their way to the locker room before their lunch-hour workout. That also affords her a good view of the chin up bars, since she has a thing for upper-body musculature. And I reminded her that nobody would suspect her of “doing research,” since she’s old enough to be their mother. And as to the hot love scenes, I just whispered them all into her ear.

 SW: Are Navy pilots really this sexy? Or is it all for show?

Sky: Oh, sweetheart, we are really that sexy. (Heather says it’s the flight suits, but don’t listen to her. Come on, this is the Skylark you’re talking to—king of the skies and the bedroom. The King of Hearts.)

SW: Okay. As cute as he is, it’s time to shut him down and thank Heather for joining us today!

heather-ashby-2013-03-07-0042-2-5Heather Ashby is a Navy veteran, whose mother was one of the original Navy WAVES in WWII. After leaving the service, Heather taught school and raised a family while accompanying her Navy husband around the United States, Japan, and the Middle East.

In gratitude for her Army son’s safe return from Afghanistan and Iraq, she now writes military romance novels, donating half her royalties to support wounded warriors and their families.

An award-winning author of romantic fiction, Heather is a member of  Romance Writers of America, and also belongs to regional/specialty chapters, including The Golden Network and First Coast Romance Writers. Additionally, she holds memberships in RomVets and the Military Writers Society of America. Heather lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida, with her retired Naval Engineer husband and three rescue cats.

All photographs courtesy of Heather Ashby and Sharon Wray.