Winning Words: How a “Win A House” Essay Contest Inspired My Novel

Is the pen mightier than a realtor's "For Sale" sign? My next novel, AT WAVE'S END, features a "Win-A-House" contest.
What’s the key to Win-A-House contests? In my next novel, AT WAVE’S END, a woman gambles on a hardscrabble inn.

Photo: Peaches&Cream

What if a few hundred well-chosen words and a nominal entry fee could land you a lakefront cabin, a Maine bed and breakfast, or a Vermont weekly newspaper?

This premise is not as farfetched as it sounds; the essay-contest-as-sales-technique is alive and well and capturing the fancy of thousands who submit heartfelt essays in the hopes of winning one of these enticing properties.

I’ve been intrigued by these novel sales pitches for several years, ever since a close friend confided her desire to enter an essay contest to win a Maine bed-and-breakfast. Is the pen mightier than, say, a realtor’s open house, I wondered, and what seduces individuals to enter? Do entrants consider the pitfalls to these competitions?

Ultimately, the lure of these solicitations became the backbone of my second novel. (Read more about how Hurricane Sandy and other elements inspired AT WAVE’S END.)

In AT WAVE’S END, coming in August 2017, a middle-aged woman wins a Jersey shore bed-and-breakfast in an essay contest. When Connie Sterling arrives to claim her prize, however, she discovers everything isn’t as it seems. Connie’s problems only multiply after a major hurricane threatens the coastal community.

(Read more about how Hurricane Sandy and other elements inspired AT WAVE’S END.)

Though this character’s dilemma is entirely fictional, real-life Win-a-House contests occasionally fizzle. For example, last year, Vermont’s Hardwick Gazette abandoned its essay contest to find a new owner for the newspaper after failing to generate enough entries to add up to a profitable sale (the key to these contests).

A lack of entries also forced owners of a 35-acre Virginia farm to call off its essay contest in 2015 and begin the arduous process of refunding contest entrants.

Even the New England inn contest, which awarded the property to entrants from the U.S. Virgin Islands, wasn’t without derision from some contest non-winners.

Given these hiccups, potential participants might be wise to scan this New York Times article on the headaches of “Win-a-House” contests before diving in. If after doing so, you’re still game, take heart: a New Jersey couple just announced an essay contest to sell their lakeside cabin in the Catskills. They’re so confident in the premise they plan to launch a contest platform to help other sellers do the same.

And by the way, in case you’re wondering about my friend, she never submitted her essay. After mulling it over, she decided she’d be happier running a bar.

So if you hear of any “Win a Bar” essay contests, be sure to let me know so I can pass the word along.

What about you? Would you risk a few hundred dollars to win a home or business? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

(Read more about how Hurricane Sandy and other elements inspired AT WAVE’S END.)

Order your copy of AT WAVE’S END.

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Resurrecting a Darling: Conclusion of Mia’s Story

Old Man of the Mountain

Talk about a cliffhanger.

I didn’t set out to make readers wait three months for the conclusion of “Still Life,” a spinoff tale about Mia Bailey, a secondary DELIVER HER character who refused to give up the ghost.

But as it happened, life intervened—in the form of family demands, developmental edits for my next book, another go at NaNoWriMo. I’m grateful for your patience, and now present, to quote the late American radio host Paul Harvey, the rest of the story:

Synopsis of Parts 1 and 2: Mia Bailey weighs a troubling request from her imprisoned birth father while coping with her adoptive father’s obsession with a New Hampshire landmark. At this point, Mia’s faith in Camden Bailey’s crusade to save The Old Man of the Mountain had begun to crumble, much in the manner of Great Stone Face himself.

Conclusion:  STILL LIFE

Recalling our quiet drive home, I regret now I did not remind him that the Old Man of the Mountain did exist, etched on our license plates and road signs, onto both sides of the New Hampshire quarter. Granite State fourth graders proudly recited the legend of his caretakers, the list of literary works inspired by his curt jaw.

The evidence was all around us: a living, breathing civics lesson.

He didn’t often miss our family meal, but that night the society’s trustees would convene. As my mother chopped salad, I swung our conversation around, concocting an ethics class death penalty debate so I could ask her if God could forgive a sin like Felix Delgado’s.

Her face darkened, the blade striking butcher block like a gunshot. “Even God has limits, Mia. The only good that ever came from that man was you.”

Her position clear, I chose not to burden her, retreating to my studio to work on my next assignment, a still life. As the night burned, the mongoose’s ragged strokes on my canvas bore no resemblance to the tranquil fruit platter before me. So absorbed was I that at the sharp rap on the glass, my brush skidded off the canvas, leaving a great gash across my work like an open wound, the mongoose dropping to the stone floor.

My father’s appearance was a surprise; he rarely ventured down the steep path without checking first. A person deserves privacy, he said. Inside, he pushed past me, agitated, halting in front of my easel. “It’s over, Mia. The monument. The committee. Everything.” The society had voted to dissolve; no more fundraising, no visitors’ center, no 20-foot granite monolith. “People won’t put their faith in something they can’t see.”

I stroked the nubbly thermal of his arm, murmuring comforts. Though I ached for him, I understood. You couldn’t go back in time. Or change the past.

Sighing, he noticed the paintbrush on the floor and picked it up, cocking his head to study my painting. “This one doesn’t seem like you, Mia.”

I could only shrug. He was right; a stranger might have painted this piece.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, slinging an arm around me. “You’ll work it out. Whatever it is.”

“I’m trying.” It was hard to swallow, suddenly; the studio’s glass walls oppressed. Accepting the mongoose he offered, I rolled its wooden workhorse body between my palms. “Dad, I don’t know what to do.”

It was so easy to tell him about Felix Delgado and his demons. He stroked his chin as he listened. “Seems like the man wants to clear his conscience before he goes to his maker. A selfish thing to ask of a child.”

“I’m not a child.”

“You’re my child. But if you want to do this, I’m with you.” He suggested we visit the prison the next day.

And so it was decided. Removing the damp painting from the easel, I set a fresh canvas in its place. Studio lights dimmed, we climbed the rocky path back up to Swiftriver.

By three o’clock the next afternoon, most of Route 93 was behind us. We drove under a spring sky bruised purple, having made separate, tacit excuses to my mother, the visitors’ lot deserted when we arrived. Passing through the metal detector, I gave no thought to whether my pants swished or clung or violated in some other fashion. An officer shut us into a small windowless room with four folding chairs. We sat in two of them, my eyes drawn to the yellowed ceiling, where a rusty kidney-shaped stain threatened to bleed onto a neighboring tile.

When the door opened, I jumped. The caseworker introduced herself, then the balding prison chaplain behind her, the two dragging the remaining chairs to face us, leaving no place for Felix Delgado. My father cupped my knee territorially.

The caseworker turned to the chaplain. “So. Reverend, could you…”

“Of course.” He cleared his throat. “Miss Bailey, Mr. Bailey. I’ve been meeting with your—Mr. Delgado—for a few months now. I planned to bring him here today.” He ran a finger under his collar. “Sadly, when I arrived at Felix’s cell after lunch, he was…that is, he had already passed.”

Stricken, I turned to my father. “How could he…?”

“You should have let us know,” my father said.

The caseworker leaned forward. “You were on your way by then. I thought I should tell you in person.”

“Felix was quite comfortable at the end,” the chaplain added. “He didn’t suffer.”

“Is that so?” My father got to his feet. “I’d say we’re finished here, then.”

The chaplain jumped up. “There was also this.” He held out a worn mahogany bible, its spine reinforced with duct tape. “Felix wanted Maria to have it.” Numb, I took the book, flipping through its soft pages, past folded-down corners and scripture passages underlined in thick pencil, the motion causing some papers tucked inside to flutter to the floor. I knelt to collect them: a laminated Serenity Prayer; a yellowed clipping of an art award I won in high school; a rough-edged photograph of me as a toddler, birthday hat tipped rakishly, a womanly arm encircling my waist, a celebration I could not recall.

My father helped me to my feet and led me toward the door.

We were frisked at the exit. Felix Delgado’s bible made the cut. On the ride back to Swiftriver, his scripture balanced on my knees, it began to snow—a weighty, unseasonable blanket that threatened to reduce the delicate roadside blooms to a memory.

Back in my studio, my father fed the woodburning stove while I opened the bible to a heavily underlined passage from Luke: “But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

I cried then, for the toddler in the birthday hat, mourning her lost embrace. My father stroked my hair, and I dried my tears on his shirt’s flannel comfort.

When I eventually looked up, a rare resignation etched his face. Remembering his loss, I intertwined my fingers in his.

“You did everything you could, Dad.”

“I wish I could have spared you that, Mia.”

“Not today, Dad. The Old Man. People won’t forget. They’ll visit. I’ll visit, too. Whenever you want.”

I kept that promise. That fall, on my first break from my New York studies, we drove to the scenic overlook. I peered into the viewfinder, squinting until the real and imagined on that distant notch became one; when finally, I perceived everything through his eyes.

The End

Read Part 1 of “Resurrecting a Darling”

Read Part 2 of “Resurrecting a Darling”

NaNoWriMo 2016: Why It’s a Novel Idea for Me

Another day, another two thousand words.
Another day, another two thousand words.That’s National Novel Writing Month.
Am I doing NaNoWriMo this year? Yes, but not for the obvious reasons.

In spring of 2011, I rode an elevator to the eighth floor of a Manhattan office building, clutching the first pages of a short story I’d begun prior to the star of this beginners’ fiction writing class. Once I located the classroom, I sat down beside a woman about my age who clutched a glossy three-ring binder.

As the conference room filled, we chatted amiably. We had a lot in common: we were both mothers; we both lived outside the city; this was the first fiction writing class for each of us. However, that’s where the similarities ended. During introductions, she explained that, instead of workshopping the two to three short stories suggested by the class syllabus, she would offer up CHAPTERS of her NOVEL for critique. The binder she held contained an entire BOOK.

When her turn came, she opened that binder to page one and began to read her story, something to do with the plucky daughter of an Indian family resisting her parents’ attempts at an arranged marriage. I recall being transported by the dialogue, the lush setting, the young protagonist’s spunk.

More than that, I marveled at my classmate’s achievement, the satisfying chunk of pages contained between those plastic covers. How did one write an entire book, I wondered? Where did one begin?

Fast-forward to fall. Writing furiously by then, I had registered for a tsunami of writers’ resources. A notice about NaNoWriMo caught my attention: Write a novel in a month!

Gamely, I registered, despite having offered to host a sit-down Thanksgiving meal for forty that same month. I had only a wisp of a premise when I rose early that first morning in November. I hewed to the rules: no outlining, no editing. Day after day, I wrote in the dark solitude before work. And though I did not approach the target 50,000 words that November, I learned several crucial lessons: that if you put yourself in a chair day after day, words come. Sentences develop. Characters show up, talk to you, prod you. They take you places you never knew existed.

And slowly but surely, you have a chapter. You have a story. The story might be winding, unyielding, but it’s there. The process teaches you that with a little bit of discipline, it IS possible write a book, even one that never sees a bookstore’s light.

NaNoWriMo helped me to unlock my classmate’s secret.

I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo twice more since then. Both of those labors remain in figurative drawers. Since that first fiction writing class, I’ve published one novel, with another coming in summer 2017. But this November, I’m giving it another go, for an entirely different reason. It’s because I’ve lost my way a bit as a writer, distracted by publishing’s expectations. My book was well received, but seven months later, sales have leveled off and reviews slowed to a trickle. Such is the way for most published authors. And now, having submitted my second manuscript, I’m in developmental edit limbo, waiting for feedback.

And I know the question is coming, that all-important “What are you working on now?” inquiry that will determine my immediate fate as a writer. NaNoWriMo couldn’t be better timed, because this year, I’m going to use the challenge to test-drive a new idea, to see if it has wheels and traction. But more importantly, NaNoWriMo makes me go back to the well and rediscover the passion for writing madly, for one’s own satisfaction, for the thrill of watching words fly onto the page, adding up deliciously each day.

When NaNoWriMo 2016, this may or may not turn into book three or four. Or a sequel to book one. Perhaps it simply will join its predecessors in the drawer. I don’t know yet, but I’m excited to explore the possibilities on the page.

Because that’s what writers do.

Boninovo Love Locks Burnish Suicide Safety Net

"Love locks" on a fence erected to prevent suicides high over the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Two New Jersey women continue to fight back years after a cluster of young adult suicides in their beach town. Photo: Author’s own.

On a dizzying cliff in Boninovo, Croatia, high above the Adriatic, padlocks of all shapes and colors cling to a chain-link fence, couple’s names engraved or Sharpied on their metal flanks, their keys flung into the sea below in dramatic pledges of undying love.

“Love Lock” sites like this one have multiplied around the world, from Paris to Moscow to Prague, their origins unclear, an Italian novel and an ancient Chinese tradition mentioned as possible inspirations.

In Boninovo, however, there is more to this story. The three-foot fence glittering with hundreds of locks was placed there by local officials as a suicide prevention barrier. A 2015 study in Lancet Psychiatry supports the premise that restricting access to a suicide ‘hot spot’ can delay the action, allowing time for intervention.

More than 800,000 individuals each year take their own lives, according to World Health Organization estimates. In September, Suicide Prevention Month,  communities around the globe encourage citizens to “Connect, Communicate and Care” through events ranging from bike rides to concerts to candlelight vigils to butterfly releases.

Community engagement is key to reducing suicide. Today, I’m highlighting two courageous suicide prevention and awareness initiatives in my own community, a family-friendly beach town primarily renowned for its surfing beaches until a cluster of young adult suicides in the last decade aimed a more somber spotlight on us.

The first is WITHOUT TIM (Lisa Schenke, 2013), a brave and candid book by local resident Lisa Schenke, whose oldest son Tim was the first to take his life in this cluster. After Tim’s death, Lisa became passionate about getting the message out to struggling teens and young adults to celebrate and embrace life, and assisting others through the grieving process after a loss of a child or loved one. Her book chronicles her journey through the years just after Tim’s death as she grieves and rebuilds her relationships with her family, other struggling youth, the community, God, and—most difficult of all—herself.

This morning, Lisa will once again lead Team Timfinite during the sixth annual Jersey Shore Out of the Darkness Walk, an event she helped to spearhead and actively promotes. Learn more about Lisa and her resources for teens, parents, family and friends in the face of suicide at withouttim.com.

The second local initiative is You Can NOT Be Replaced®, launched in 2013 in response to the seventh local high school suicide in the cluster. Founded by Melissa and Chip Dayton, parents of eight children, You Can NOT Be Replaced emphasizes the irreplaceable value of life and the power and influence each person has to impact others for good.

Through outreach to schools and community organizations, the You Can NOT Be Replaced program and passable wristband project has impacted 31,000 students across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Additionally, Melissa Dayton has authored Crushed: When Parenting is Hard: A Journey to Strength and Hope (CreateSpace, 2016), a guidebook designed to help those struggling with the challenges of parenting.

Both of these works by my friends and fellow authors are excellent resources to engage families and communities not only in suicide prevention but also in positive parenting.

Resurrecting a Darling: Mia’s Story, Part 2

Cemetery, Dubrovnik, Croatia. Photo credit: Author's own
Cemetery Boninovo (Dubrovnik, Croatia). Photo credit: Author’s own

When we left off in Part 1 of this four-part serial, artist Mia Bailey, a DELIVER HER darling whose back story was snuffed during the novel’s editing, had returned home after receiving a troubling message from a prison case worker regarding inmate Felix Delgado, Mia’s birth father.

Missed Part 1 of “Still Life?” Catch up here.

Alarmed, I scanned my mother’s face for evidence the caseworker had connected to champion Delgado’s cause. “About what?”

“Your paintbrushes, silly.”

“Right.” I sagged onto the porch steps in relief, recalling my text to her from the art depot, and offered her my bag. Reaching inside, she stroked the mongoose’s angled tips. “Perfect, Mia. I know you’ll do great things with them.”

With that, she stood and stretched, and I followed suit, trailing her into Swiftriver, the store redolent of cedar and cumin. For the next few days, I wrestled with the caseworker’s request before deciding to drive down to the Concord jail.

That’s how I found myself in the prison parking lot deconstructing the visitors’ clothing. Across its concrete campus, the penitentiary operated a sign shop, print shop, and a tailor – a regular maximum security Main Street – churning out products with names like GraniteCor and JailTuff. Somewhere on this cement horizon, Felix Delgado lounged on a JailTuff cot, reading his bible—a model prisoner, sober, reborn. The man even led a prayer group, the caseworker contributed in a subsequent call, ticking off the prisoner’s fine points like a girlfriend coaxing me into a blind date.

Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos. My lips moved with childhood supplications, echoing my birth mother’s unanswered prayers. Damn him for playing the cancer card. If we did meet, would he still tower over my five and a half feet, stare back at me with my own pewter eyes? If my steely black curls came from him, would his be dusty with age? And if my words provoked him, as my birth mother’s often had, who would shield me from his fury?

He only asked for a few minutes. And the world. Conflicted, I turned on the radio and drove out of the prison gates.

Back home again, in our apartment over Swiftriver, I found only my mother, my father out tending to the latest crisis of his preservation society, a band determined to restore The Old Man of the Mountain, the jagged profile nature hewed from Franconia rock. A decade ago, his society employed all manner of engineering to cleave the deteriorating formation to its mountain base. In the end, neither the iron net of chains nor the cement band-aids they fabricated could prevent Great Stone Face from crumbling on a May morning after a late spring snow.

My father grieved, The Old Man in his blood from the winters he skied Cannon Mountain as a boy. He tried to instill this passion in me, but I only read disapproval in all the silhouette’s sharp, angry angles. A year after it fell, he took me up to the scenic overlook his society constructed. Hoisting me onto the viewfinder’s pebbled step, he slid a New Hampshire quarter into the slot and angled the viewer at blue cotton sky, toward the ledge where The Old Man once presided. “There he is, Mia. If you hold this just right, you can see him. Just like before.”

I pressed my face against icy green steel and squinted. The actual, living mountain appeared in vivid relief, but the shimmering outline of Old Man at the cliff’s edge was only a shadow, a reconstruction by those determined to remember. I leaned away to examine the actual granite notch, then squinted into the viewfinder again.

My father’s hand warmed my shoulder. I longed to see what he saw, to reconcile the disparate images. But no matter how often I refocused, Great Stone Face remained a gauzy relic.

That day at the overlook, I had my first grown-up thought: the real Old Man was just a pile of dust somewhere.

End of Part 2. To Be Continued.

Missed Part 1 of “Still Life?” Catch up here.

Resurrecting a Darling: Mia’s Story, Part 1

graveyard Though writers are routinely advised to ‘kill their darlings,’ even accomplished authors mourn the death of those extraneous passages and characters as their fingers hover over the Delete key.

Happily, technology affords writers a means of putting those darlings on ice, a digital graveyard where the dear departed can cling to the hope of a second life, perhaps reincarnated in a future work.

In the case of my first book, DELIVER HER, a mother’s rescue mission that goes south, darlings identified for the chopping block included the points of view of Iris and Mia Bailey.

While Iris willingly gave up the ghost, accepting her downsized fate, Mia refused to rest in peace, taunting me until I offered life support: her own short story, told in the first person, of course. (What else would you expect from an entitled millennial?)

So, in this space, I give you Mia Bailey’s story, entitled “Still Life,” in four installments I’ll roll out more or less regularly over the next few posts, a strategy I hope will entice you to subscribe if you haven’t already.

Maybe now Mia will stop haunting me.

And writers: please use the Comments section to offer a eulogy for any darlings you’ve had to eradicate.

Still Life

What the hell were swish pants, I wondered, scrutinizing the knots of humanity at the prison entrance. The visitors’ dress code was explicit: no athletic gear, no jackets, no sleeveless shirts, no nurses’ scrubs.

And no swish pants.

I worried I might wear them unknowingly if I decided to visit him. I hadn’t, yet. The prison caseworker first tried to reach me a week ago, while I was choosing between paintbrushes for spring studio class. Ignoring the call, I stroked an imaginary canvas with each: the mongoose lush and full-bodied, stiffer than sable but softer than workaday bristle; the Ruby Satin’s fiery sable like pure magic, hand-cupped in its seamless, nickel-plated brass ferrule, ready to do my bidding.

Reluctantly, I put back the pricier brushes, promising myself if I ever traded my White Mountains for the Great White Way’s hallowed art halls, I’d splurge on a dozen Rubies.

In my car, I played back the caseworker’s message:

I’m looking for the daughter of Felix Delgado.

It was me she sought: Mia Bailey, the artist formerly known as Maria Delgado. Her words brought everything back: the heinous act that severed our bond thirteen years ago; the childless couple who took me in, offering a fresh canvas for my future, placing a paintbrush in my hand to express what words could not, their love healing me.

Over time, I no longer dreamt of that night: my birth mother yanking me into a closet and clutching me to her saffron-scented apron until the only sound in our apartment was her heart hammering against my cheek. I woke alone, on a makeshift mattress of coats.

Later, online, I stumbled upon the jurors who absolved Delgado’s addictions, literally saving his neck in a state constitutionally predisposed to hanging.

No one could save Delgado now, the caseworker told me. The C5 in C5432998, his inmate ID, stood for maximum security. Also, the big C had ravaged his brain. Her voice softened. “The man is dying, Maria.”

“It’s Mia,” I corrected.

“He’d like to see you, Mia. He has a few months at best. Please think about it.”

His last wish blurred every dimension of my paint-by-number life: the cushion of my adopted mother’s shoulder as she read and rocked; mornings sketching beside my adopted father in his turkey blind, a nest of twigs and fencing we camouflaged with fresh greens on every visit; hours losing myself in my studio, the sacred space he constructed for me from our shed, majestic windowed walls rising to meet in a sleek arch overhead, my latest work propped on an easel inside.

My parents were on the porch when I got back to Swiftriver, the general store they operated on the hip of the Kancamagus Highway. My father stood, contemplating Mount Washington, while my mother lounged in an Adirondack chair. Both brightened at my arrival.

“So: what did you decide?” she asked.

END OF PART 1.

Read Part 2 of “Mia’s Story.”

A Deleted DELIVER HER Romance: For Iris and Carl, What Might Have Been

Camden Bailey's bullet lights weren't the only things heating up in an early version of DELIVER HER.
Camden Bailey’s bullet lights weren’t the only things heating up in an early DELIVER HER draft.
To alert readers who detected a frisson of attraction between Carl Alden, the beleaguered transporter of DELIVER HER, and Iris Bailey, the White Mountain storekeeper who, with her husband Cam, comes to Carl’s aid when his teenage charge goes missing: you’re pretty perceptive.

Spoiler alert: This post discusses a minor DELIVER HER plot point.

In early iterations of the novel (then titled TRANSPORTED), Iris figured more prominently in the story. That original Iris was restless, discontent, bored with her small town existence and pining for her native New York. Carl’s appearance was a welcome diversion.

Alas, Iris and a few other characters, victims of editors’ red-lining, ultimately were toned down and/or relegated to minor roles in the final version, the flame between the unlikely couple extinguished.

But despite those revisions, a few allusions to the Iris-Carl chemistry must have remained. So, for those readers rooting for a little romance for the transporter, I thought it would be fun to go to the vault and retrieve an early (and wildly overwritten) scene between the two–publishing’s version of the cutting room floor. These pages happened so early in the process I apparently had not yet decided to tell the story from multiple points of view.

Keeping those disclaimers in mind, I’d love to know what you think of the originally conceived Carl and Iris. Are they a match made in heaven, or disaster waiting to happen? Might there have been a future for them?

The scrape of a branch against the studio’s glass roof jolted Iris back to the present. She ducked her head, anticipating the crash she was certain would follow, the tree poised to topple, but there was only silence. For the first time, she questioned the sanity of coming down here. Cam had cleared most of the trees around Mia’s studio, mindful of the vulnerability of the glass structure, but there were no guarantees.

It was probably nothing. The storm had heightened everything: sound, light, emotion. Beside her, Carl’s forehead shone with sweat. His bandage had come loose at one end, and he fiddled with it absentmindedly, making it worse.

Here was one thing I could do for him, Iris thought, turning and gently pulling his hand away. In those few seconds, their fingers intertwined, Carl fought the urge to grab Iris’s and bring them to his lips. Instead, he let her guide his hand to his side. “You’re making a mess of that,” she murmured. “Let me help you.” Leaning closer, she smoothed the edge of the bandage, pressing lightly on his temple to secure the adhesive, the heat of his skin scorching her fingertips.

“There. Better. You were very lucky.” Iris’s voice was a balm as they faced each other squarely, her hands stroking his temple, as though trying to erase the pain of the day. Her breath fell on his cheekbones like snowflakes.

Carl sat motionless under the gentle massage, eyes closed, as her hands, scented lavender, moved to his cheeks, never losing contact, taking his face in both hands. In tandem, they registered the other’s touch; comforted by it. For Iris’s part, she felt necessary, validated; no one had needed her like this in a while—certainly not Cam, and Mia only rarely, an adult now, bearing the consequences of her actions.

“Iris.” Carl’s voice was scratchy with fatigue. “I don’t want to take advantage here.” She stopped him, covering his mouth with her own, exploring its unfamiliar roughness. Granted permission, Carl joined more fully in the kiss. As Iris sank into his hold without protest, sleet drummed a warning on the tin roof.

On Mother’s Day, Letting Go of Past Imperfect

The Donovan women, circa 1994.
The Donovan women, circa 1994.
Make no mistake: no one would ever nominate the fictional Meg Carmody for Mother of the Year, especially after the desperate mom in DELIVER HER went behind her husband’s back and made an impetuous decision about her teenage daughter that would alter her family’s life forever.

But while it’s hard to applaud Meg’s actions, some among us can certainly sympathize. After all, who among us hasn’t made some missteps along the parenting journey? Among the few I will cop to publicly (besides my unflattering mullet in the accompanying photo) are a regrettable toenail-trimming episode with our older daughter when she was five, and allowing my younger child to subsist mostly on peanut butter as a preschooler.

My point is, parenting is hard, and there is no roadmap. I remember the Christmas Day in 1988 when my husband and I brought our first-born home from the hospital and set her in her Moses basket for the first time. We both looked at each other in terror as we realized the fate of this days-old person rested in our hands. We were only a little more confident and a lot more tired when we came home with the second daughter nearly six years later.

Would I love some do-overs? You bet. In hindsight, should we have allowed a nine-year-old to don a midriff-bearing “I Dream of Jeannie” Halloween costume? Perhaps not. Were we thinking clearly when, desperate for a date night, we brought the three-year-old to an evening showing of “Austin Powers,” naively assuming she would sleep through the entire film? Hardly. This lapse in judgment came back to haunt us a few days later when said three-year-old piped up from the back of a friend’s minivan: “That girl was the village bicycle; everyone wants a ride.” Next movie night, you can be sure we hired a babysitter.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Like all parents, like our parents, we did the best we could. Today, our daughters are well into their twenties, pursuing paths that reflect their personalities and individuality, and we couldn’t be prouder. They rarely need our direction, but when they do, we are here.

I truly feel for today’s new parents. It’s an age when social media tricks us into believing that everyone has this parenting thing down perfectly. The truth is, no one does, but all of this seeming perfection makes it hard not to second-guess ourselves.

Me, I’ll settle for progress, not perfection. And to Meg Carmody, and all mothers out there, I say, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

On DELIVER HER Launch Day, Reliving the Journey

DH Birthday giveaway blogUPDATE May 1, 2018: DELIVER HER turns two today! To celebrate, I’m giving away fifteen Kindle copies of DELIVER HER. For a chance to win, enter here by May 7, 2018. Winners announced here, on Twitter and on Facebook on May 8! Don’t miss the party!

UPDATE May 8, 2017: DELIVER HER just turned one! To celebrate, I’m giving away five signed copies of DELIVER HER. For a chance to win, sign up for my newsletter by May 13, 2017 using links at top and right. Winners announced here and on Facebook on May 13! Don’t miss the party!

playland_poolToday is the day every writer waits for: the day their book officially launches into the world. To celebrate today’s publication of DELIVER HER, I made a pilgrimage to Rye Playland, the scene of several key events in the novel. It was a beautiful spring day, not unlike the afternoon the fictional Meg Carmody strolled the promenade, pondering a very important decision.

And since launch day comes but once, it seems appropriate to briefly reflect on this four-year journey. Because just as Carl and Alex’s road trip takes some unexpected turns in DELIVER HER, the book’s path to publication experienced its fair share of detours. Just how far the story veered from my original intent became apparent to me one recent evening at the local library.

The event was Pitchapalooza, when aspiring writers make one-minute book pitches to The Book Doctors, who critique the pitches and choose a winner. As a 2012 winner, I was invited to be an “alumni” presenter at this year’s event.

Playland pilgrimage on DELIVER HER launch day.
Playland pilgrimage on DELIVER HER launch day.

For the uninitiated, a book pitch is a writer’s elevator pitch, their sales pitch, their book’s heart and soul in sixty seconds. A savvy writer knows their pitch inside and out and can recite it on demand. (For the record, when my publisher challenged me to describe DELIVER HER in fifteen seconds, I accepted. You can watch that here.)

Anyway, when it was my turn to face the fifty or so hopefuls waiting to pitch their own stories last month, I dug out my old pitch (see below) and began to read it. And as I read, I smiled, because the book I pitched four years ago, then titled TRANSPORTED, was miles from the story of the desperate mother and grieving daughter in conflict that is DELIVER HER. Rather, the book I nervously pitched four years ago belonged to Carl, a solitary, stranded driver-for-hire smitten with Iris, a disenchanted “sloe-eyed” shopkeeper. (On a side note, I’m convinced the phrase “sloe-eyed” clinched Pitchapalooza for me that year.)

Having collected my prize that night, I went home to write that book, to flesh out the twenty-five or so pages that formed the basis for the TRANSPORTED pitch. The first order of business was fashioning a client for Carl to transport, to give him a shot at Iris. And so were born mother and daughter Meg and Alex Carmody, two headstrong women who commanded my attention like hitchhikers waving madly on the side of the road. It was impossible to ignore them. Ultimately, their complicated story took precedence over Carl’s, who gallantly stepped aside to serve as the vessel for this family’s journey.

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If you haven’t yet read DELIVER HER, I hope you will, and let me know what you think of it. If you have read the book, I think you’ll enjoy reading the original pitch below, which provides a peek into the writer’s process. In early reviews of DELIVER HER, readers are rooting for Carl and want him to find love. Or at least another client. I think he will.

Because what I’ve discovered about writing is that it is rarely a straight path from A to Z. Just as in life, there are plenty of traffic jams, distracting drivers, and rough road. But if you sit back and relax, the creative process can be a exhilarating ride, with side roads and scenery too delicious to miss.

Thank you for spending DELIVER HER launch day with me!

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Original Pitch for TRANSPORTED, July 2012

Thirty-eight-year-old Carl Alden sells serenity. He’s a professional transporter, a hired hand to whom parents pay almost any price to deliver an out-of-control teen from their bed to treatment.

At her limit, Meg Carmody hires Carl to transport 17-year-old Alex from the Maryland shores to a New England rehab. The pre-dawn pickup is executed flawlessly. But just miles from the Alpine Rehabilitation Center, the elements conspire to throw the transport off course. Carl regains consciousness to find Alex missing and an ice storm raging.

At the Swiftwater General Store, a log cabin on the hip of the Kancamagus Highway, Carl accepts help from Iris, a sloe-eyed shopkeeper whose own dreams were detoured 20 years before. A hundred yards away, Alex bargains with a young stranger to lead her back to civilization.

Duty-bound to his client, Carl must find the girl and complete the transport, or risk his reputation and his business. Alex must decide if freedom is worth the price. Swiftwater provides shelter from the storm, a command center for the search, and an unlikely milepost from which to examine roads not taken.

Confessions of a Serial Submitter

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This time would be my last, I vowed each time I prepared for submission. But having feasted on the fruits, the aftertaste of hope lingered.

My habit started small. I told myself I wouldn’t pay for it, so I lurked in the shadows at first, stalking smaller sites where I could get it for free; where gratification was instant and the competition less fierce. But then there was that first payoff, a mere pittance at twenty dollars, and I was hooked. Craving a more intense return, I cast a wider net, convincing myself that ten or fifteen dollars was a reasonable price of admission to play with the big guys. After all, in those days, I was still coming out ahead.

Pouring over the weekly offerings, there was always one that wooed me: heat, distraction, chaos, taboos. I would seize upon it, make it my own. But before long, once a week wasn’t sufficient, and I went on the prowl–for more themed issues, writing prompts, contests. They didn’t ask much: 150, 500, 750 words. Surely something in my body of work could be adapted or repurposed, a rejected offering sized up or down according to the rules.

Then came the wild days of unsolicited submissions, my dashboard cataloging weeks and months of activity, acceptance, decline, withdrawal. A string of modest successes kept me going back for more: one, twice, sometimes three times in one day.

And then, a fallow period. Months passed without a Glimmer of hope. In search of answers, I discovered some sites had died a quiet death, my submissions suspended in literary limbo. It was time to take stock: How much more was I willing to risk; how many more words would I part with, and at what cost? I was loathe to admit it, but every flash, however fleeting, bled moments from the real work, the stuff that mattered.

Swearing my gambling days had drawn to a close, I resolutely ignored the notifications, ferociously attacking a neglected manuscript instead, self-medicating with King, Patchett, Strunk.

Today, I’m in a better place. But lest I be swayed by a seductive “Last Chance to Enter” subject line, I always remind myself: One word at a time.

photo credit: no mail today via photopin (license)