Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Awesomest Launch Party I've Ever Had (So Far)

The launch party for Strength to Stand at SubText Books in downtown St. Paul was a thing of beauty.

It started with the cake, created by Taste of Love Bakery in West St. Paul:

Which I threatened to kill, because there was a knife there. I mean, seriously, who gives a suspense author a knife?

And a crowd started gathering before we even got started:

I got to sign a bunch of books (and if you want to get one, SubText still has signed copies) as well as give away some author swag:

And I talked for a little bit about how the book and characters came to be and then read a short section from the book:

But we all know who the real star of the show was:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Suspense and the David Cohen series

Destined to Choose (book 1 in the Rabbi David Cohen series) and Strength to Stand (book 2) are very different books in some ways. Destined to Choose might be best described as literary suspense (literary fiction with suspense elements) and Strength to Stand is an out-and-out thriller.  It's come to my attention that an explanation of why this is, and what's in store for the rest of the series, might be of help to readers.

Let me start with a little bit of background. I first wrote Destined to Choose over a period of several years, culminating in its initial publication in 2003. In 2000, I'd shopped it around to other publishers, both Jewish and mainstream, and received some heartwarming responses. The vast majority of publishers loved it. The biggest problem was that I was an unknown author. The next biggest problem was that it was a niche book, too religious for some of the mainstream publishers, not religious enough for some of the Jewish publishers. Some publishers said they'd take it if I could prove myself with a few standalone novels first. Others said they'd publish it if it wasn't part of a series—if it was a standalone novel itself.

Photo: thinkpanama
I actually received several book contracts for it, but I didn't like some of the things they required in the contract. At the top of the list was that I'd have to sign over rights to the series. If Destined to Choose didn't sell well enough for their bottom line, I would be legally prohibited from publishing any other books in the series with another publisher. This, as you can imagine, is the kiss of death for a series author. So I declined to sign them, and my attempts at renegotiation didn't go anywhere.

Upon the recommendation of the founder of a small Jewish press whom I highly respected, I launched my own publishing company in 2002, taking great care to get everything right so that I could compete with the big guys. It worked, better than I could have ever imagined.

At the time, I wasn't thinking about genre. I'd written the book that was inside me, the one that wouldn't leave me alone. David and Sara and Batya and Arik and Eli can be very noisy when they want to be heard. I'd written it also thinking that the primary audience would be the Jewish community, or those who were interested in Judaism. I thought of it as a kind of "scholarly fiction"—the thinking person's novel. A novel with depth and well-researched ideas from a distinctly Jewish perspective. To be honest, I thought that the Jewish community would respect "scholarly fiction" more than "fluff fiction," but the overriding drive was that I love books that make me think more than books that simply make me laugh.

The very best piece of writing advice I ever received was, "Write the books that you want to read." I did exactly that.

 I'd published Destined to Choose with a small print run supplemented by on-demand printing, years before that became The Thing To Do. I didn't print the genre on the book itself because, honestly, I thought of it simply as "fiction." Then I started noticing some troubling things.

Amazon had tagged the book "Christian fiction" until I wrote to them and pointed out that it featured a rabbi, who was rather obviously not Christian. They didn't have a "Jewish fiction" tag back then. (They do now.) Barnes & Noble was shelving it in the "Christian Fiction" section of the bookstore, where it wasn't getting noticed, or was getting passed over because it wasn't, well, Christian.

Around the same time, a publishing organization of which I was a member offered an educational meeting about choosing the right genre. I figured maybe it was time to give this another look. The meeting was a presentation by a bookseller, a book reviewer, and a librarian. I had the opportunity to talk to them about my book. I gave them a copy to look through. They did, and discussed it among themselves.

When they called me back, they said they'd unanimously agreed: Destined to Choose was, in the
Photo: Derek Bruff
broadest terms, a mystery. More specifically, it was a suspense, but bookstores didn't have suspense sections. They all agreed it should be marketed as a mystery.

"But there's no murder," I countered. "Nobody even dies."

"Not all mysteries have to have a murder," the book reviewer told me. "This clearly has suspense elements: finding the teenage runaway, then what all is going on in the rabbi's life, and then especially everything leading up to the crisis with the teenager. That's suspense."

The bookseller nodded. "I'd shelve this in the store in the mystery section."

The librarian nodded with the other two. "What they said. It's not a murder mystery, but it's still within the genre."

I thanked them for their time and consideration and started marketing Destined to Choose as a suspense novel. I also started thinking about the rest of the series.

My idea for the series was pretty general. I knew I wanted to pair each novel with a Jewish holiday, finding intriguing ties between the plot and the holiday. I knew I wanted to deal with big issues: the existence and role of evil in the world, hatred and intolerance, family violence. I knew that each book would be partly from David's point of view and partly from others' points of view. I knew that I was less interested in a whodunit and far more interested in a whydunit.

But I hadn't plotted out all of the books in the series. I didn't have a whole-series story arc. Some might say that I should have had all of that in place before I published Destined to Choose, but if I'd waited until my series plan was clear, then the publishing company—if it ever got launched—wouldn't have been around to publish other authors' books. Many debut authors and two veteran authors wouldn't have the award-winning books that Yotzeret published. The timing might not have benefited me, but it definitely benefited others. Who am I to say that wasn't part of the Big Cosmic Plan?

Photo: Stuart Anthony
Years passed while I raised very young children and published others' books. I worked slowly on Strength to Stand. Several traumatic life experiences changed me and how I see both myself and the world. My writing developed and changed as I did. I wanted to challenge myself as a writer. I wanted to stop hiding in fear of what others thought. I became willing to write controversial material. Strength to Stand took on a different shape. It became darker. Edgier.

Strength to Stand was, once again, the book that was in me. The book I wanted to read. But ten years had passed and I was a different person. I was a different kind of author. The characters remained the same, but I was willing to put them in more difficult circumstances. I stopped playing nice.

There's now a sort of dichotomy between the first two books in the same series.

Readers who hear about Strength to Stand and are drawn to the thriller nature of it will quite possibly be disappointed by Destined to Choose. Readers who loved the almost-cozy-mystery aspect of Destined to Choose might find Strength to Stand too dark or too violent. Readers who love books that make them think and feel might well enjoy both.

The third book, No One to Fear, is even darker and more violent. It's a no-holds-barred thriller with a whodunit element. If Destined to Choose was rated PG, Strength to Stand would be PG-13, and No One to Fear will most certainly be rated R. It's the book that's in me and I won't apologize for being who I am.

If you're like me, you like (or need) to read a series in order. For many—some may even argue most—series, all the books are going to fall in the same genre. If the first book is a cozy mystery, so will be the second and fifth and tenth books. If the first is a thriller, you're not going to get a romantic comedy thrown in the mix. Those are arbitrary rules that someone made up about book series. Rules can be broken.

Ultimately, the Rabbi David Cohen series is about the stuff of life that enters David's realm, his arena, so to speak. It's the could-actually-happen events that real people deal with, where life—quality of or length of—hangs in the balance. Sometimes that stuff of life is harsh and unforgiving, dark and violent. Sometimes it requires thought and finesse and subtlety.

Photo: Karola Riegler
I invite you to join me on this journey with David and Sara, Batya and Arik, Eli and others as they deal with this stuff of life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—no matter what labels the genre folks would like to slap on it. Let go of your expectations that every book in this series be a thriller or a mystery or a whatever, and enjoy them for what they have to offer: a story that makes you think and feel about life and the world around you.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Triggers, Critics, and Rosh Hashanah

It is two days before my newest novel, Strength to Stand, is released to the public, and I would have expected myself to be ecstatic. The book and I have both overcome so many odds to get to this point that the very fact some interested reader can hold it in his or her hand is nothing short of a miracle. Emotions swirl around inside me: gratitude, pride, humility, joy.

Yet there are others there, uninvited guests who have taken up residence in the party room, scaring away the fun with their chilly presence: pain, despair, hopelessness, depression. I was certain I hadn't invited them, certain my focus was on the guests I wanted. I had every intention of getting autographs from hope, opportunity, and love. So why the downer?

Because pistol triggers aren't the only kind of triggers that can leave a gaping, bloody hole in one's life.

If you've spent some time on this blog, you know that I've come out about battling depression, among other things. I've also written a little about what life was like in my family, growing up. Over time, I finally learned that I have worth, that my opinion counts, and that the Torah actually commands us to love ourselves (though not in a narcissistic way). These are life lessons that we need to learn experientially, not intellectually. And for those of us who grew up with a lot of criticism or shame or violence, learning these life lessons may well be the thing that keeps us alive.

But what these lessons do not do, unfortunately, is erase the pain or the shame or the scars left on our bodies and souls. And when something similar to those original assaults comes along, it can rip off the scabs, tear open the scars, and leave us hurting and weakened, right back in the center of hell.

There's some interesting psychology around what are now called Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs). There are a total of ten (defined) ACEs, events occurring before a child turns 18, including but not limited to physical and sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, mental illness or addiction in the family, and divorce, violence, or death in the family. The ACE study has linked these adverse childhood events with later (decades later) physical and emotional health issues. The higher you score on the ACE Questionnaire, the greater the likelihood you'll have one or more of the health issues commonly associated with ACEs.

Is it causal or correlational? The brain science behind the study does seem to show that it's causal. Long-term stress caused by these ACEs has a physiological effect on the development of the brain, thus leaving individuals at greater risk for health problems and reduced longevity. But it's not a death sentence. Science also shows that there are things we can do to help heal our brains.

Nowhere on that list, though, is finding ourselves, willingly or not, in the middle of situations that resemble the original assaults we endured.

We call those situations triggers, though that seems like a relatively innocuous word to describe all that scab-ripping, soul-tearing pain. Avoiding triggers is good. Becoming strong enough in ourselves that the triggers lose their power is even better.

I'm not there yet. I will be. But not today.

I got triggered this past week, which is probably what sent out the party invitations to the chilly, downer guests. Here's what happened, in a nutshell.
  • I received a mean-spirited, snarky review of Strength to Stand from a review journal infamous for mean-spirited, snarky reviews. They described my characters in caricatures, wrote in hyperbole, and then accused me of writing stereotypes.
  • Everyone else said that this was one (anonymous) person's opinion, and meant nothing amidst the sea of overwhelmingly positive reviews. One supporter thought my book was "too Jewish" for this reviewer. Another wondered to what extent there might have been an undercurrent of antisemitism. My favorite comment, by far, was from one reader who asked, "Who peed in [their] Wheaties this morning?"
  • My brain didn't—couldn't—go there, as much as I tried. I tried doing the whole I-have-worth, I-am-loved, I-am-not-defined-by-one-review thing and no matter how much I practiced measured breathing and positive thoughts, they could not break through the Door of Shame that locked me inside with all my trigger emotions.
  • Locked behind that door, I was a child again, harshly and undeservedly tongue-lashed by an adult who held my physical and emotional safety, indeed my entire survival, in their hands.
  • My brain processed this criticism as "Not only did you do something bad, but by creating this and putting it out into the world, you have irreparably harmed the universe."
  • My brain, honed by forty years of well-placed, well-timed barbs meant to cut, maim, and destroy, followed this train of thought: I did bad = I am bad = I am not worthy of living.
The negative critic in my head has been busy too. "If you're going to be an author, you're going to need thicker skin than that. Maybe you're not cut out to do this author thing." No judgment there.

Intellectually, I get it. All authors get bad reviews. No author's books are for everyone, and clearly, the snarky reviewer is not the intended demographic for my book. The greatest authors of all time get bad reviews. The book I'm reading right now and love has received bad reviews. It's one person's opinion and nothing more. I get it. I really do.

Emotionally, the child-me has associated that review with a parent's authority, tossed it onto the mountain of evidence that I don't measure up, and tried to convince me to find another career. Or at least stop writing Jewishly-themed books.

In related news, I've finally gotten around to watching the last half of Glee Season 5. The episode in which Rachel reads every negative review ever written about her performance in Funny Girl, of course, hit home. It begged the question, "Am I going to let the bullies, the haters, the trolls keep me from my passion?" Am I really going to give them power over me? Over my life?

Clearly, critics and bullies and haters (or those who comprise all three) are in abundance these days, especially on the Internet. Responses to them have made their way into popular songs, as well as television shows, evidenced by lyrics like, "Done looking for the critics 'cause they're everywhere / They don't like my jeans, they don't get my hair" (P!nk, "Perfect," 2010). 

Taylor Swift, in an interview about the song-you-either-love-or-hate, "Shake It Off," said, "The message [in 'Shake It Off'] is a problem we all deal with on a daily basis. [. . .] We live in a takedown culture. People will find anything about you and twist it to where it’s weird or wrong or annoying or strange or bad. You have to not only live your life in spite of people who don’t understand you — you have to have more fun than they do."

So as we head into the Jewish New year, as I ponder the year ahead and what I want it to look like, what G-d may want it to look like for me, words from the Unetanah Tokef—a thousand-year-old religious poem—come to mind: "Who will be safe and who will be torn? Who will be calm and who will be tormented?"

It is said, during Rosh Hashanah in general and during this poem specifically, that teshuvah (return [also translated as "repentance"]), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (justice [also meaning to act in a just or charitable manner]) can "avert the severity of the decree." While some interpret this to mean they must confess their sins, pray more (or go to shul more), and donate more money to charity, here's my interpretation:

Teshuvah (return): I return from what others think of me to knowing who I really am. I am Sheyna. I am created b'tselem Elokim, in the image of G-d. Through G-d, I am loved and accepted completely and unconditionally. Without need of caveat or disclaimer, I am enough, just as I am.

Tefilah (prayer): I internalize my intention to return, and I ask for G-d's love and support in my process and at all times. I seek out time for prayer and meditation, time to Connect. I seek out people who are loving and supportive, and situations in which I feel safe and supported.

Tzedakah (justice): My actions toward myself and others come from a place of justice. I treat my body, mind, and soul with care, compassion, and love, for I and others are created in the image of G-d, and how I treat myself and others is how I treat G-d. I do not expect perfection, but I do expect myself to show up and do all I can.

I know that this is not an all-done!-check-it-off sort of deal. We do have Rosh Hashanah every year, after all. We have every day to make a change. Every morning when I wake, up I can choose whether I want to keep my power or give it to the critics. In every moment, I can choose whether to see myself as I fear others may see me, or I can be who I am.

I may not be able to avoid the triggers, nor the wounds they leave. Yet. But I may have found the key to get out of that locked room of shame, and the exit door to show to my chilly guests.

Because damn it, I worked really freaking hard to get this book out into the world, and it's time to party!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Being an Author OR Check Your Ego at the Door

Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes, because you might just get it. That can be a problem.

The problem isn't getting what you want. The problem is that once you have what you want, you want something different, something more.

In an author's world, there is no such thing as enough. There's always the next book, the next review, the next reader, the next appearance, the next award, the next book contract. Sure, some few lucky writers have more than they ever could have dreamed of in royalty income. Their award shelf is sagging with the weight of having won every award given in their genre. Some might call that enough. But no true writer I know of has ever finished writing a book and said, "Okay, I'm done now. No more books."

There's always another book. Which means there's always more reviews, sales, signings, award submissions. There's always a new opportunity to succeed. Or fail. Most authors do some of both.

This past May, I was feeling pretty down, coming off the temporary high of seeing interior and cover files for Strength to Stand go off to the printer. This book was a long time in coming. I'd finished most of the book by 2006, with the exception of one scene that my editor wasn't buying. The manuscript languished as I put all my efforts into my day job and my kids. Years passed, and while I felt the pull to return to that manuscript, it wasn't until a good friend prodded me into rewriting that one scene, late in October 2014, that I finally picked up the mantle of author again.

I was a writing machine for two months, the book coming together seamlessly. In January 2015, it was back in my editor's hands. By April, Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) were being prepared, and by May, I was four chapters into writing book 3 (No One to Fear) in the series. And then I did the Bad Thing. The Bad Thing that authors should never do if they want to keep their sanity. (No, not that one. The other Bad Thing.)

I compared myself to other authors.

I was skimming through Facebook and seeing posts from fellow author friends, some struggling with their work in progress (WIP), some also anticipating a new release in the fall, and then others who were awash in good news—every few days a glowing review or the announcement of an award won.

If you've ever compared yourself to someone whose life's work is somehow related to yours, you know the inevitable outcome: when you compare yourself to others, you always, always lose. I am now convinced that authors should only ever compare their current work to their work from at least a year ago. No one else's. Ever.

But the book industry thrives on comparison. "If you like x author, you'll like y author." The various bestsellers lists are all about ranking sales, and if you know anything about the book industry, you know that sales are not a factor of how good the book is. Rather, sales are a measure of how effective and broad the marketing campaign was (hint: $$$). But any author who is deemed a "bestselling author" will claim the title without asking any questions, and they certainly won't ask if they're now a bestselling author because of the quality of their work or because a well-timed publicity campaign followed by a few Goodreads giveaways happened to go viral and it could have happened to anyone.

And then there are awards. The ultimate in comparison. Awards are supposedly an objective ranking of the best books in any given genre. But even this is suspect. Awards judges have biases, including sometimes a bias against Jewish books, no matter how well they're written, or a bias against small presses, no matter how beautiful and professional the book appears.

In the space of one week on Facebook, I watched no fewer than three authors, whom I knew personally, receive highly prestigious awards nominations, win other highly prestigious awards, and receive amazing reviews in some of the most highly regarded media, all for their debut novels.

I felt sure my book, which wouldn't even be out for another five months, was doomed to fail.

I wrote an impassioned note to an authors' group in which I'm active, hoping for some comfort or support: "I'm finding that as I'm seeing all the awards nominations and the photos from conventions, reading about new book deals and bestseller lists, I'm happy for those involved, and it's also kicking into overdrive my tendency to compare myself to others, in which I always lose.

It's hard sometimes to remember that I write the books that are in me, in my soul, not the books in someone else. I don't write for the purpose of winning awards or making a bestseller list, though both would be welcome acknowledgments.

I'm learning to focus on my own writing, on being true to that part of me that MUST put words to paper, reminding myself that I'm me and you're you and there's no need to compare. And yet..."

The responses were as expected: Yep, that's life. Keep on writing. Me too. One author posted a blog article on writer envy. I didn't want to admit this was what I felt.

Another well-published author sent me an email in response, and managed to hit the nail on the head, saying their reaction was twofold: happiness, on the one hand, for these other authors' successes because they deserved them, and a mixture of hurt, despair, and even anger, that after years of writing and being published, they still didn't see the level of acknowledgment these other authors were now enjoying.

That was exactly it. I was thrilled for my author friends, who were finding such success (and with their first novel!), and at the same time, there was a little voice inside asking, "But what about me?"

Ten days later, I learned experientially that I should be careful what I ask for.

Ten days later, Destined to Choose, my first book, the one that was first published back in 2003, which was re-released as a tenth-anniversary edition in 2013, was named a National Indie Excellence Award finalist. Kindle sales of Destined to Choose spiked and it ranked #1 in the Kindle store under Jewish literature. Back on the authors' group, I felt like eating crow.

Sometimes we human beings learn best by experiencing what we need to learn. And often times, especially for the hard lessons, the Universe decides to teach us also through repetition. So it was with me, though whether that's because it was a hard lesson or because I have a hard head remains to be seen.

By the end of May, about 180 ARCs had been sent out to reviewers, bloggers, magazines, newspapers, and journals. I figured by August, I'd start seeing reviews. August 15th came with nary a review, and not knowing where to turn, I emailed my publicist, trusting her experience and trying hard not to whine.

"Oh, who knows?" my publicist said, adding that many reviewers shoot for publishing reviews closer to a book's pub date (in this case, September 1st), so I may see more in September. Some may hold on to reviews until late fall, since the book takes place during Chanukah, and then they could review it as a "Chanukah book." (It isn't, really, but I could see the point.) In any event, she instructed me to keep working on those things I could control, check in with some of the places to which ARCs had been submitted, and let the rest go.

A trusted advisor pointed out to me that, really, I'd already received reviews in the form of blurbs. They were all fantastic. No one said, "Sorry, I can't blurb this; I didn't care for this book." The same advisor asked me what I felt about this book.

"I love it," I said. "I think it's a better book than the first one, though I'm loving book 3 even more than the second one."

"Isn't it a sign of growth as a writer that each successive book is better than the one before it?" she asked.

"Yes. It's when the first one is spectacular and the second one tanks that you have a problem."

"And you love Strength to Stand?"

I had to separate out my own feelings from what I'd taken in from others. "I do," I said.

"Then there you go."

I'd gotten myself to the point where, even if no one else reviewed Strength to Stand, I still believed in it. I still loved it. I was coming to understand that reviews didn't define my book, and they certainly didn't define me. I could live with that.

And then this morning, I received an email with a link to a review of Strength to Stand, which reads in part: "Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text." The review will appear in the fall issues of three publications in Florida.

Okay, I get it, Universe. Really. Do I have to eat crow again?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Please join my street team!

I'm looking for a few good people. Or maybe a lot of good people. I'm looking to form a "street team," a roving gang of readers who can do things I can't for David, Sara, Batya, Arik, and the rest of the folks in the series. Here's how it works:

    What you get:
  • Your very own ARC (advance reading copy) to read and enjoy
  • Unfettered access to me (Sheyna) via email and, if enough people are on Facebook, a Facebook group
  • My undying gratitude
  • Gifts, giveaways, and discounts at my discretion (only available to street team members)
  • A chance to be a part of something bigger

  • What you need to do
    • Read the ARC. Note that there are errors in it. I'm aware of them, which will be corrected before the final printing.
    • Do as many of the following FREE things as you can:
      • Post about Strength to Stand on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Shelfari, BookLikes, The Reading Room, etc.)
      • Review it on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Library Thing (Goodreads is available now; others may not be available until closer to the on-sale date)
      • Talk about it in Goodreads groups
      • Include my book in a photograph of you or a friend. BONUS: post the photo on Instagram
      • Ask your local bookstores to order it (they can pre-order), and if you go on vacation, ask bookstores at your destination to order it
      • If you see my book at a bookstore, tell the owner/manager what you love about it—they might not have read it and aren't familiar with it
      • Ask your local libraries to order it (and libraries at any vacation spot you might be at) and tell the librarian about it, and why you like it
      • Tell any book clubs you know about it
      • Ask your local book clubs, synagogues, churches, or other organizations to carry it in their gift shop (if applicable) and consider having me do a presentation, reading, and/or signing
      • Let me know if you see any good reviews, or post about them and tag me
      • Take a photo of my book in a bookstore and post it (and tag me) or send it to me and I'll post it (it's good publicity for the bookstore too)
      • Vote for Strength to Stand as one of your favorite books on any contests, especially through social media
      • "Like" my author page on Facebook if you haven't already, and encourage your friends to do the same. BONUS: Click on "get notifications" (hover over "liked") so you know when I post something
      • Comment on (don't just "like") my posts, which gives those posts greater visibility to others
      • Share my Facebook posts
      • Follow me on Twitter (@sheynagalayn) and retweet my tweets. Encourage your friends to do the same
      • Encourage your friends to sign up for this newsletter
      • Add me to your Google+ circles
      • Talk to me about my book when you see me (I don't get sick of it, really)
      • Follow my blog (Books and Beliefs)
      • Come to my launch party, either in person or my virtual launch party on Facebook
      • Attend my in-person or virtual events. There's nothing more disheartening than going to a signing and having no one show up
      • Write about my book or series, or interview me for your own blog, or ask me to do a guest post for your blog
      • Tell all of your friends
    • Do any of the following not-free things if you can:
      • Pre-order my book
      • Buy copies to give as gifts
      • Buy copies and donate them to fundraising auctions
      • Buy a copy to donate to your synagogue or church library (if applicable)
    That's it! Unless you think of more things, and then by all means, please do them. And let me know what you did, because I may add it to my list. 

    Remember, authors don't make much money from book sales, and believe it or not, small publishers don't make much either. If everyone bought books on Amazon or at bookstores, I would make $0.80 per book in royalties, so I need to sell A LOT of books to afford to travel to signings, give out author swag, and bring in money to the household so I can work on Book 3. The only way to sell A LOT of books is to have a lot of buzz and word-of-mouth publicity. That's where YOU come in! 

    If you'd like to join my street team, just email me at Or if you're on Facebook, go to request to join.

    Thursday, May 28, 2015

    Fiction: to describe or not to describe is the question

    Less than a week ago, I had a conversation with another author in which she asserted that she can always identify an amateur author by the fact that they describe their characters upon introduction. I didn't respond. I was a little shocked and I didn't know what to say. She explained that she could be friends with someone for years and never know what color their eyes are, so an eye color description in a book was a tell, practically a sign screaming amateur. She went on, saying that in her first book, she didn't describe any of her characters. At all.

    "But do they need to be described?" asked a second author, who'd joined the conversation.

    To answer that question, I have to pull out my favorite Jewish answer: it depends.

    I've thought about this, worried about this, even obsessed about this a little (okay, maybe more than a little) since the conversation took place. I know that I'm sensitive to it because my first ever bad review (to which I did not respond, thank you very much) was about my character descriptions. This reader (not a professional reviewer) even used the same trigger word, saying that descriptions are the mark of an amateur writer.

    I'm willing to take constructive criticism. Some of my beta readers actually wanted more description (body type, clothing, stature, facial features) because they couldn't picture the characters otherwise. Other beta readers took the opposite stance: "Why do I care what color her hair is? Get on with the story."

    I was (and am) adamant that some descriptors are important, even essential, for the reader to know. It's important for the reader to know that David (my rabbi protagonist) is clean-shaven, because there's this assumption that all (male) rabbis have beards. It's important for the reader to know that Arik looks Middle-Eastern (and in book 3, that will cause him a lot of grief).

    That said, I also have learned in my growth as a writer that the old instructions to writers, imparted in sage tones by prestigious-award-winning authors, no longer apply in today's reading climate. It used to be that description, whether of character or setting, was the place where an author's prose could have free rein to explore flowery language and poetic combinations of sounds when read aloud. But now? Now readers want action. They want dialog. They want, it seems to me, something more like a script.

    There's no description on TV or in the movies. What a character wears, looks like, observes in their scenery is just there. We know which cops wear suits and ties and which ones somehow manage foot chases in low-cut silk blouses and high heels because we see it. But we don't really process what we're seeing. We're too engaged in the plot and the dialog.

    Some readers (and some authors) think that not describing characters allows the reader to put him/herself into the story. If the protagonist is a redhead and the reader is a brunette, it's harder for the reader to imagine herself as the hero, is the argument. Lack of description allows the reader to fill in their own.

    I disagree. It's the opposite for me. Lack of any description leads (for me) to a difficulty in seeing and therefore connecting with the characters. I don't want to have to do my own casting for the story. I want to know what the author pictured. I want to be invited in, to feel like I'm there, and that's hard when all I have are faceless names on a page.

    But I'm also a visual person, and not all readers are. Perhaps, then, it's simply a matter of style, or taste. I like it when authors use some description, because that draws me in. I don't like long laundry lists of description for every character (age, height, weight, hair color, eye color, distinguishing marks, corrective lenses, clothing style/color, gender expression, organ donor: yes/no, ad nauseam). I don't like laundry lists so I don't write them either.

    Part of what sticks in my craw is really the application of the word amateur. So I did a little digging (in my bookcase) for other mystery/suspense/thriller novels. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It is, however, a nice sampling, and I think it supports my point that the use of description is the author's style and may not be for everyone, but doesn't make that author any less talented or skilled or experienced. Here's what I found:

    Agatha Christie, Evil Under the Sun (1940), "pocket book" edition, p. 16: "Young Mrs. Redfern had taken off her rubbery cap and was shaking out her hair. She was an ash blonde and her skin was of that dead fairness that goes with that colouring. Her legs and arms were very white. With a hoarse chuckle, Major Barry said: "Looks a bit uncooked among the others, doesn't she?"
         Wrapping herself in a long bath-robe, Christine Redfern came up the beach and mounted the steps towards them. She had a fair serious face, pretty in a negative way, and small dainty hands and feet."

    Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), mass market edition, p. 6: "...the driver a long-framed man, his sharp-featured face intense, the muscles of his jaw pulsating, his clear light-blue eyes furious. Beside him sat his strikingly attractive wife, the reddish glow of her auburn hair heightened by the dashboard lights. In her arms was an infant, a baby girl of eight months; in the first backseat was another child, a blond-haired boy of five..."

    Note: This is a description of the protagonist, which could justify more description, and it's important to point out that the description here does not stand alone but also gives us mood and setting and the protagonist's feelings. So let's look at a non-protagonist character...

    Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Ultimatum (1990), mass market edition, p. 13: "There was a brief knock on the door and the DCI called out for the visitor to enter. A medium-sized, slightly overweight man with wide eyes magnified behind steel-rimmed glasses walked into the room..."

    Jonathan Kellerman, Therapy (2004), hardcover edition, p. 4: "He waited, green eyes dimmed to near brown in the miserly light of the restaurant. Under the spotted napkin was a baby blue polo shirt that really didn't work well with his pallid complexion. His acne pits were flagrant, his jowls gravid as freshly filled wineskins. Long white sideburns frizzed his big face, a pair of skunkish stripes that seemed to sprout artificially from his black hair. He's a gay policeman and my best friend."

    Note: While not the protagonist, this is a major supporting character. This description does not overtly provide mood or feelings, but it does paint a clear picture, and gives us some insight into what the character thinks of himself and what others think of him, which come into play later in the book. Let's look at a minor character...

    Jonathan KellermanTherapy (2004), hardcover edition, p. 9: "She was in her midforties, trim but wide in the hips, wore green velour sweats, glasses on a chain, and nothing on her feet. Ash-blond hair was texturized to faux carelessness. At least four shades of blond that I could make out in the light over the doorway, blended artfully. Her nails were painted silver. Her skin looked tired."

    Lee Child, Bad Luck and Trouble (2007), hardcover edition, p. 16: "She hadn't changed much in the four years since had last seen her. She had to be nearer forty than thirty now, but it wasn't showing. Her hair was still long and dark and shiny. Her eyes were still dark and alive. She was still slim and lithe. Still spending serious time in the gym. That was clear. She was wearing a tight white T-shirt with tiny cap sleeves and it would have taken an electron microscope to find any body fat on her arms. Or anyplace else.
         She was a little tan, which looked good with her coloring. Her nails were done. Her T-shirt looked like a quality item. Overall she looked richer than he remembered her. Comfortable, at home in her world, successful, accustomed to civilian life. For a moment he felt awkward about his own cheap clothes and his scuffed shoes and his bad barbershop haircut."

    John Sandford, Gathering Prey (2015), hardcover edition, p. 32 (protagonist description): "Lucas was a tall man, dark-haired except for a streak of white threading across his temples and over his ears, dark-complected, heavy at the shoulders. He had blue eyes, a nose that had been broken a couple of times, and a scar that reached from his hairline down over one eye, not from some back-alley fight, but from a simple fishing accident. He had another scar high on his throat, where a young girl had once shot him with a piece-of-crap street gun. So his body was well lived in, and he'd just turned fifty, and didn't like it."

    John SandfordGathering Prey (2015), hardcover edition, p. 77 (minor-character description): "Chet got out of the car and an old man came to the front door of the house, pushed the screen door open, and stepped out. He had a mustache over a three-day beard, watery blue eyes behind plastic-rimmed glasses. He was wearing overalls and rubber boots, and carrying a pump shotgun, a 12-gauge."

    None of these samples are from first books for these authors, so we can't say that it was a newbie mistake and they're better now. All of these authors are award-winners. All are or have been bestsellers. All have sold a freaking lot of books and have huge fan bases.

    I had to look a little harder for a book with little or no description, but I did find one...

    Erin Hart, The Book of Killowen (2013), hardcover edition, p. 20 (non-protagonist description): "For three days and three nights, she had studied his face against her pillow—dark hair and eyes, flawless pale skin that had somehow retained the high color of youth, though he was probably at least forty."

    Erin HartThe Book of Killowen (2013), hardcover edition, p. 29 (protagonist description): "She let her gaze caress the back of Cormac's head, admiring, as she so often did, the curve of his skull, how pleasingly it intersected with the angle of his jaw. Whenever he turned to speak she once again remembered the meandering path those same lips had traced across her bare skin only a few short hours ago."

    There is a great deal of description of setting (Ireland) and scenes ("The cottage roof was stoved in and the windows were broken, the frames peeling paint; every wall seemed invaded by damp and mold."), but almost nothing of characters.

    I'm not willing to say that Erin Hart is the only professional, experienced author in the group I've just surveyed, nor am I willing to say that her books suffer from the lack of character description. (In fact, I could argue that with the detailed descriptions of scene and setting, adding descriptions of characters might be too much description, and perhaps the author was well aware of that. Or maybe her editor hated character descriptions and cut them all out. I'd have to ask.)

    What I am willing, even eager to say—and say loudly—is that character description is part of the author's style and what the author wants to convey to readers. Every traditionally published book (and these all are) goes through at least one editor's hands many, many times over. If it makes it into print, it was okayed by the editor(s). If character description was a bad thing, it would be edited out by all editors, not just the ones who don't care for it.

    And that's ultimately what this all comes down to: preference. Some authors use a lot of description while others don't feel they need to use any. Some readers prefer description, others can't stand it. Most readers have learned that if they dislike description, they can skim over it and quickly get back to the dialog.

    But description or not, it doesn't mean the author is an amateur, it doesn't mean the book is bad, and it shouldn't be used as a weapon to beat up either author or book.

    One last note: self-published books and books published through publishing services (like CreateSpace) are a mixed bag. Some are extensively edited by professional book editors, and in such cases, the use of description is the same as with a traditionally published book—author style. Others are barely edited, or edited by an English major, or not edited at all, and these may be a little more suspect, simply because they haven't been as thoroughly vetted. A professional editor might leave the character description alone, or trim it down, or remove it all together.

    What's your preference on description? Do you like it or hate it or don't care either way? What do you do when you encounter character description in a book?

    Tuesday, May 19, 2015

    Destined to Choose named award finalist!

    I'm super-thrilled to share that my first book, Destined to Choose, has been named a 2015 National Indie Excellence Award finalist!

    DTC-cover-3D-frontleft-finalist-smHere's two things I've learned from this:

    1. CELEBRATE! To celebrate this win, Destined to Choose is being offered for FREE as an ebook from Tuesday 5/19/15 through Saturday 5/23/15, and the paperback is 36% off at the publisher's website ( For those who don't know why it's 36% off and not some more "normal" number, it's a Hebrew language thing. In Hebrew, numbers are written with Hebrew letters. The number 18 is written as חי (chai), which means "life." The number 36, as a multiple of 18, becomes "double life."

    2. STAY IN THE GAME! Destined to Choose was first published twelve years ago. Yotzeret Publishing re-released it in 2013 as a new edition with a 10-year-anniversary update to the Author's Note, a few error corrections, an updated interior design, and a new cover (which I LOVE!). That re-release made it eligible for the National Indie Excellence Awards.

    I could have said, "You know, it's had a good run. Why invest the extra money to submit it for an award? After all, it hasn't won any awards yet." Reminder to self: it didn't win any awards because it was never submitted for any awards when it came out! Instead, I said to myself, "Self, submit this book! It has a shot at winning. It's a beautiful book, readers love it, and it meets all the eligibility requirements. And, there's still time before the submission deadline. You read about this award for a reason, so submit it already!"

    And now here I am, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put FINALIST stickers on my books. It's exciting. It's something I've wanted for a very long time. And I'm really pleased that I—and others—still believe in this book, because that paid off this week.

    And just think: it's less than four months until Strength to Stand comes out!

    Friday, January 02, 2015

    Finding the Good: Parshat Vayechi

    Today is my oldest son's birthday. This week's parsha (also spelled parasha) — Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26) — was his Torah portion for his bar mitzvah, and he and I spent months examining and re-examining it, talking about it, occasionally arguing about it. He chose to speak about whether or not Yaakov was blessing his sons or rebuking them, and what exactly constituted a rebuke. He also chose to avoid speaking about how the legacy continues of the younger son receiving the older son's blessing (much to my younger son's consternation). You can read the full text of his d'var Torah here.

    Last year, the part that stood out for me was the passing on of one's legacy — knowledge, wisdom, beliefs, hopes, and dreams — from one generation to the next. Of course that made sense: my eldest was claiming his place in our community, accepting the legacy I and others were handing down to him.

    And this year? This year a different part spoke to me. That's as it should be. That's why we read it again and again, year after year. The text doesn't change, but we do. Where we are in our lives a year later allows us to see messages that we weren't ready to hear a year earlier.

    This year's gem is a short phrase that Joseph utters when his brothers beg his forgiveness after their father, Yaakov, has been buried. The brothers are worried that Joseph might still hold a grudge against them, and they send Joseph a message saying that their father (allegedly) instructed Joseph to forgive his brothers. And Joseph responds by claiming that he is no substitute for G-d, and further, in part:

    וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה השם חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה
    And you intended evil upon me but G-d intended it for good...

    For many of us, our lives are filled with a succession of adversaries. Some are small and easily overcome. Some are lifelong struggles that, G-d willing, when we look back in our final days, we'll see that we finally triumphed against. Overcoming the messages from my childhood (particularly the notion that no matter what I did, or who I became, I'd never be good enough) was a big one. Dealing with my depression, which I did actually liken to the yetser hara — the evil inclination as an adversary — here, was another. Coming to terms with having chronic physical illnesses is yet a third.

    It's so easy to cry out, "Why me? It's not fair! Haven't I had enough?" It's even easy to look at others who have battled (or are still battling) cancer, loss of limbs, loss of their entire family in a tragedy, or other horrendous experiences and write off our own as not worthy in comparison. But pain is pain. Loss is loss. We're not in a competition. And I'm wondering if there's more to be learned from the adversaries I now face.

    Somehow, I drew the genetic straw that gave me physical limitations that are sometimes severe, and a few even life-threatening. I can imagine speaking to them, to the genetic code, to the physical health legacy passed down through my biological ancestors, and saying to them, v'atem chashavtem alai ra'a, Hashem chashabah l'tovah. You intended me harm, but G-d has intended it for good.

    And some day I will look back and see, clear as day, what the good was, and why this obstacle is so necessary to my growth.

    Shabbat shalom!

    Thursday, January 01, 2015

    Counting What Counts

    Image: Flickr/Christine Urias
    Last night, while at a small and lovely New Year's Eve party with friends, we counted down to 2015 three times. Once, at about 10:30pm, to King Julien's (Madagascar movies) New Year's Countdown on Netflix. Once, at 11:00pm, to one of the local news stations that airs the New York countdown in real time. And once at midnight, local time. At the first two, I felt a bit like I was playacting. At the third, I had to blink back a few tears.

    "You can never have too many countdowns," said Sharon, one of the hosts of the party.

    She's right.

    What made the first two countdowns seem insignificant had nothing to do with the discrepancy with local time. They seemed insignificant because I didn't allow them to have meaning. Only the third met my criteria for being "real." Which means I'm missing out on a lot of potentially meaningful moments. It's time to change my criteria.

    We celebrate a lot of transitions in Judaism. Marking time with lit candles, with specific prayers and blessings, we don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality. And sometimes it feels like playacting, and sometimes it's a deep, heart-wrenching shift from what was to what can be.

    We're not wired this way. Left to our own devices, the days blur into one another, weeks into months into years, with the occasional lit countdown ball or birthday greetings to remind us that another year as passed, another year we've walked the earth, another year gone that we could have made holy.

    As it says in Tehillim (Psalms): "Let us then know how to number our days, that we may obtain a heart endowed with wisdom. [...] Oh satisfy us in the morning with your kindness, that we may be glad and rejoice throughout all our days. Cause us to rejoice as many days as those wherein you have afflicted us, the years wherein we have seen unhappiness." (Ps. 90:12, 14-15).

    It's a mindful act, to attend to each day. It requires thought, focus, intention. Each evening deserves its own countdown, that "there was evening, and there was morning" — a new day, a new chance to start over, a new opportunity to be the person we are each intended to be.

    We don't just wait for meaning to hit us; we carve meaning into the fabric of our reality.

    My days used to be ruled by to-do lists, responsibilities and obligations to others, a never-ending litany of tasks like laundry and dishes, tasks that seemed to benefit no one in the long term, yet still needed to be done. Work was predominant in my life, and the fact that others were waiting, counting on me, was the only taskmaster I could hear, driving me on to the detriment of all else.

    This year — this day — is an opportunity to change that, to attend not only to my work, but to the rest of my self: my physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual needs. It's a new year. It's a new day. It's a new now.

    Let the countdown begin again.