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I write novels for teens and adults. Visit me here & on my website http://www.jenniferarcher.net

Friday, April 24, 2009

"Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, Baby"

Unless you were born yesterday, no doubt you've heard the lyrics to Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. (Hear it on YouTube)I agree with their message wholeheartedly. Whether it's love, butter, cheese, or Coca Cola, imitation or altered versions just don't come close to the genuine article. This is true of research, too, especially if you're writing fiction. As an author, I can read about a place or a profession in a book or on the Internet, and I can learn a lot -- enough, even, to write my story and make it believable. But actually visiting that place in person, or talking to someone that works in the profession I'm writing about, can serve to take the writing a step above, to make it come alive in a way it just can't, otherwise.

The first part of my novel THE ME I USED TO BE is set in Portland, Oregon.
I've never been to Portland, and it wasn't possible for me to fit in a visit there before my deadline. So I researched the city through the Internet and travel guides I bought at the bookstore. I think I managed to portray Portland realistically in the book -- at least, none of the letters and emails I received from readers pointed out any goofs. But because I was worried about making a mistake, I found myself holding back as I wrote those chapters. I kept my descriptions about the place as brief and basic as possible. I did just enough to get by. Had I actually had the opportunity to explore the city, I could've included more local color, the scents, the sounds, the rhythms of the place. By absorbing and experiencing all those things firsthand, I could've put the reader more "into" the story and made the book even stronger.

The book I'm writing now -- my Young Adult novel, scheduled for release in the fall of 2010 -- is set in the Texas Panhandle, where I live. However, I live in the city of Amarillo, while Cedar Canyon, the imaginary town in my story, is a little town with a population of only 2,300. So I recently made the half-hour drive from Amarillo to Panhandle, Texas, which is about the same size as my fictional town.
Cedar Canyon's high school plays a big part in my story, so I spent the day at Panhandle High. I know three teacher there, and they graciously allowed me to observe their classes. What a great experience! I came home with over 15 pages of handwritten notes about teen clothing and hair styles, teen expressions ("Groovy" is no longer in vogue! Who knew? Just kidding. I'm almost that old, but not quite), descriptions of the classrooms and hallways, sounds, scents...too many things to name here. I had forgotten the sounds one hears sprinkled into the silence while taking a test -- the rustling of paper, sighs, scratch of pencils on pads, squeak of chair legs against the floor, foot falls down the hallway, the droning voice from a film being shown on the other side of the wall in the next room. By placing myself in the middle of a setting like the one in my book and experiencing all the sensory elements, I am now able to add so much realism, so much flavor to my story as I work on the rewrite. I hope these details serve to make the reader feel as if he/she is experiencing what is happening in those scenes -- to make them feel they are actually there.

If you are a beginning writer, I highly recommend experiencing your place, person, topic, etc. firsthand, if at all possible. Yes, it takes a little more time, but it's time well spent. Fiction-writing is an art, and creativity shouldn't be rushed. As a friend of mine once told an editor -- "I'm an artist; I don't work well under pressure." She said this jokingly when a deadline was too tight, but I think there's truth in her statement!

"Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing
Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing

I got your picture hangin' on the wall
It can't see or come to me when I call your name
I realize it's just a picture in a frame

I read your letters when you're not near
But they don't move me
And they don't groove me like when I hear
Your sweet voice whispering in my ear

Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing

I play the game, a fantasy
I pretend I'm not in reality
I need the shelter of your arms to comfort me

No other sound is quite the same as your name
No touch can do half as much to make me feel better
So let's stay together

I got some memories to look back on
And though they help me when you phone
I'm well aware nothing can take the place of being there

So let me get the real thing
So let me get the real thing
Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing
Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby
Ain't nothing like the real thing"

Happy reading, writing...and researching!


Fiction website

Friday, April 17, 2009

Mary Schramski's Sterling Pen

I've intended to post this article about my friend and business partner, the very talented,smart,funny and elegant (as you can see from her photo here) Mary Schramski. It was published in the Las Vegas Sun in February, and I just happen to be quoted!

It was a thrill to talk about Mary when the reporter called me. Mary and I met at a writing conference in Dallas in 2004 at our mutual (at the time) fiction publisher's party. I got caught up in the festive atmosphere and had one too many teeny weenie martinis. (Okay, they weren't so teeny. But we were walking, not driving, so give me a break...:-) ) Mary graciously walked me back to the hotel and ordered me a room service cheeseburger. It was just the right medicine, which leads me to think that maybe she's had a bit of experience with one too many martinis herself??? We've been emailing and talking by phone ever since. A while back, we realized that we each have creativity-related strengths that the other doesn't. Put us together and you've got yourself a creative dynamo. We thought that, together, we had the background, knowledge, and experience to help people that had something to say but didn't know how to say it, as well as to help people tap into their creativity more. So we started a business. Rather than tell you about it, I'll let you read the article, which I've posted below. Or you can read it directly from the publication here. Then you should check out the Sterling Pen website and Mary's Fiction website. (One thing in the article made me laugh. The reporter says Mary looks more like a professor than a romance writer. Mary *is* a professor! Or was. She's retired from teaching now.)Happy Friday!

Valley romance writer penning her last book
By Becky Bosshart (Las Vegas Sun)

Thu, Feb 5, 2009 (6:37 p.m.)

Nicky Fuchs / Special to the Home News

The beginning of Mary Schramski's first book was set in Las Vegas.

Now she is ending her last book here, which she's writing in her Sun City Anthem home.

It just seems like it was meant to be, said the 57-year-old writer, who has penned 13novels, most published by top romance seller Harlequin/Silhouette and its more serious literary branch, Harlequin Next.

Schramski will conclude her novel writing career with "The Unicorn Tree." This novel has taken a lot of emotional strength to write, she said. It is about an adopted woman who was abused when she was a child. She comes out to Las Vegas to search for her biological mother.

"I wanted my last book to take place in Las Vegas, because I have an affinity for the city," Schramski said.

She was raised in Las Vegas and graduated from Rancho High School in 1968.

Schramski's first mainstream novel, "What to Keep," published in 2002, starts in Las Vegas with a 21 dealer who returns to her family home in North Carolina.

Schramski, a self-described feminist who went to Union Institute and University, what she termed a "radical left" school, doesn't seem like the type who would start her literary career as a bodice-ripping romance writer. She lives in a minimally decorated home — no lacy curtains or heart-shaped throw pillows.

With her white blond hair and sensible sweater and pants ensemble, she looks more like a professor than a writer of dewy-eyed tales of love lost and won.

Schramski said she picked up a romance novel one day, read it and decided that she could do that, too. It started out as something fun. Schramski shook off her "literary elitism" after she received a letter from a fan who said one of her novels helped her get through her husband's illness.

"I don't want to denigrate romance — it's a big seller," Schramski said. "I played around with it. I sent it off to Harlequin/Silhouette and it was published. I realized through writing those books, I learned how to write a novel and how to work with an editor."

And she made money at it. Schramski said she earned about $16,000 with an advance and royalties on that first book. It's been published in about six languages. Her subsequent novels made similar amounts from the major New York City publishing house.

Harlequin is known for its passionate paperbacks often found on wire racks in grocery stores. Those steamy sex scenes are fun to create, she said.

"It's more technical. You have to have things happen at the right time and you have to be descriptive enough."

But Schramski is putting these commercial successes behind her, even in an economically difficult time (she has two more novels set to be released this year, with expected moderate profits). Schramski is instead looking to guide writers to their own successes.

Jennifer Archer, of Amarillo, Texas, is partners with Schramski in their writing business Sterling Pen.

"Mary is very approachable," Archer said. "Clients seem to enjoy working with her, because she's easy to talk to and is great at giving advice. She taught for many years, so that helps with guiding clients, whether that's helping them ghostwrite a book or overcome a creative hurdle to continue a project. She's able to take what she's learned over the years and apply that to the struggles other writers go through."

Schramski will focus on editing, ghostwriting and creative coaching.

"Creative coaching is when you help bring an artist through the creative process," she said. "My goal is to help the person become the writer they want to be."

Visit Sterling Pen online at www.sterlingpen.net.

Becky Bosshart can be reached at 990-7748 or becky.bosshart@hbcpub.com.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Book Club: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

My book club met last week and we discussed last month's selection THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME by Mark Haddon. I admit that I was initially skeptical about liking this book. It is told from the viewpoint of an autistic 15-year-old boy, so as you might imagine, the story seemed to lack emotion when I first began reading the opening chapters. If you saw the movie Rainman, you know that most people with severe autism don't express emotion in the way that is considered "normal" by the majority of us. But, as it turns out, Mark Haddon is a gifted writer! As he told the story of this autistic boy methodically and logically trying to solve the mystery of who murdered his neighbor's dog, Haddon captured and relayed his main character's voice and personality so perfectly that before I knew it, I began to care about the kid, understand him, and realize that just because he didn't express emotion in a way I'm used to, did not mean he did not experience fear, love, anger, etc., in his own unique manner. I also learned alot about autism in general. Mark Haddon's biography states that he used to work with autistic children. His experience definitely came through in his writing. The book was funny and poignant and sad. I recommend it.

One of the women in my bookclub -- Donna -- who just so happens to be one of my best friends since junior high -- teaches special needs middle school kids, some of whom are autistic. Before we began our discussion, she gave a wonderful presentation to help us understand even better what it means to be autistic. Like the protagonist in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, many autistic people do not like to be touched; if fact, many of them find human touch painful. Donna touched each of us with a piece of sandpaper to demonstrate how physical human contact might feel to an autistic person. Also, while she spoke, she had the television on with the volume up as well as many other distractions going on in the room. It was chaotic and difficult to stay focused. Which was her point: autistic people are extra sensitive to sensory stimulation, as if it is more intense to them than most folks. This makes it hard for them to concentrate if there are too many things going on around them at once, even things the rest of us are able to easily tune out. Colors, sounds, movements -- all of these and more can cause distress in an autistic person.

The thing Donna said that made the biggest impression on me was in response to a comment I made. I said that despite the funny moments, I thought the book was so sad and felt so sorry for the boy because he isolated himself from people and his life seemed so lonely. Donna told me, "You feel that way because you want autistic people to be like us, and they aren't. The boy is happiest when he's alone." (Loose quote. Forgive me, Donna!) That statement really opened my eyes. What constitutes happiness for one person, may not for another. Maybe we should stop trying to make everyone fit into the most common mold.

Donna's statement also brought to mind another book I read a long time ago (non-fiction) called PARTY OF ONE, about extreme loners. As someone who has always cherished time alone, I learned that I don't come close to the level of introversion discussed in this book. I need fairly frequent interaction with people to balance out my alone time or I start to get weird! However, PARTY OF ONE also emphasized that it is not wrong to be a loner, simply different, and that society should stop trying to make naturally shy children conform to the "norm" of being outgoing by forcing them to join social activities they find extremely uncomfortable and unnatural. They are typically happier engaging in solitary activities -- reading, playing with dolls, painting, building things on their own, and why is that wrong? Anyway, the book was great food for thought and really interesting.

Our new book selection for this month is THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Elizabeth Brundage. Can't wait to dive in. In the meantime, I'm reading THE SLAVE by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a gift from my oldest son who called it one of the most "incredible" books he's ever read. It won the Nobel Prize in literature years ago. So far, I'm enjoying it and learning a lot about traditional Jewish customs.

Until next time, happy reading!


my website

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Refilling The Well

Hola! Writers live in their heads many hours of the day. I think it's important to take breaks and get out into the real world from time to time. I call it "refilling the well." (The well being my brain.) Writing drains it dry. If you don't get out and experience life, what will you have left to say?

So to refill the well, I recently spent a week in beautiful Zihuatenejo, Mexico on the Pacific coast north of Acapulco. The new photograph in the header of this blog was taken off the balcony of the condo we rented overlooking the bay. The trip was my surprise Christmas gift from my husband. Remember my personal "Do Something New Challenge?" We started a new tradition this past year, and it applies! We are alternating years planning a surprise trip for each other. Christmas of 2009 will be my turn to surprise him with my trip plans for 2010. It will be tough to outdo him! Our condo in Zihua was beautiful, the beach was gorgeous, the weather perfect, the people incredibly friendly, and the village chock full of old Mexico charm.

A little history about our destination: Zihuatanejo was a holy refuge for Aztec aristocracy many years before Columbus sailed to America. Apparently, the fairer sex dominated in Zihua as the Nahuatl word "Cihuatlán," from which the name Zihuatenejo is derived, means “place of women.” (Nahuatl is an Aztec language ) Artifacts discovered in the area indicate that weaving was the primary trade in the village.

Zihuatanejo Bay was along a Spanish trade route to the Orient. Ships passing through carried spices, coconut palms, fabrics, and silk. Legend states that one of these vessels sank near Playa La Ropa Beach where my husband and I ate breakfast at an outdoor cafĂ© every morning and took a walk in the surf before siesta time – otherwise known as margaritas by the pool. The legend says that fabrics and silks stocked on the shipwrecked boat floated to shore and washed up on the sand, giving the beach it’s name. (“La Ropa” means “the clothes”)

We were fortunate that the yearly Zihuatanejo
International Guitar Festival (www.zihuafest.info) started two days before we had to leave, so we were able to catch a few really good acts at local venues. I became a fan of one artist in particular – Eric McFadden out of San Francisco. He calls his sound “Gypsy blues.” I bought a CD and there are three songs I can't get enough of. I haven't gone to see if it's on ITunes but if it is, you should check out the song DEVIL MOON.

Oh, and another "do something new" thing I did on the trip -- I had another food adventure. I ate squid in it's own ink. Sounds icky, I know, but it was actually good! You never know until you try something, right?

I'd love to hear how some of you refill the well. And if you don't, what's stopping you? I love travel, but there are all sorts of alternative ways to energize your creativity closer to home. So if you can't travel, or don't like to, don't let that stop you.

While away, I read two books: The YA novel JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta, and THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon. Both were very unusual and very interesting. I'll post my thoughts on them soon.

Happy reading,


Jennifer Archer's website