The Three Rs: Reading, wRiting, and Roaming

November 14, 2017

I am so grateful to that Christine Keleny has stopped by to chat with me today. Christine is a Wisconsin author who writes both adult and children’s fiction. I’ve enjoyed her historical fiction “Rose” series very much (see below). For the middle-grade audience, I highly encourage you to read her Agnes Kelly mysteries. Book 2 – Narrow Escape in Norway – is now out and just in time for the holidays. This is a great family read! Book 1 – Intrigue in Istanbul – won the Midwest Book Award for children’s literature this year!!  Narrow Escape in Norway continues to follow Agnes and her grandmother on their quest to learn the true nature of her father’s work. Set in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, mysterious and potentially dangerous characters keep the suspense high. Agnes is a plucky, smart, and delightful character who is a treat to read about no matter your age! (I am already eager for book 3.)

Intrigue in Istanbul: An Agnes Kelly Mystery -- must read middle gradeABOUT THE BOOK:

"Intrigue in Istanbul: An Agnes Kelly Mystery Adventure" is set in 1961, a time of the cold war and space race. But that isn't on Agnes' radar. Her dad has died and during a trip with her grandmother to Istanbul, she accidentally finds out it was under suspicious circumstances, but that's just the beginning. Book One of the Agnes Kelly Mystery Adventure Series will make you laugh, set you on the edge of your seat, and leaving you wanting more - both the older and younger reader alike.

Everyone at the table is as surprised by Grandma’s little maneuver as I am, but I’m not looking at my relatives or even at Peggy, I’ve got my eyes glued on Grandma Agee. She’s reading Uncle Bob the riot act over at the dessert table…I’m concentrating hard on Grandma’s face, specifically her lips. But she’s turned ever so slightly away from me so I can only make out a bit of what she’s saying: “I told ya…” and “…button your lip.” among the finger wagging and eye scowling she’s giving poor Uncle Bob. With Grandma’s odd reaction and my dad being gone, unable to explain himself to me ever again, I feel an urgent need to find out is what in the world did he “get into” that Grandma Agee doesn’t want me to know about.

TO PURCHASE:      Kindle (On sale through the holidays 2017.)    Hardcover (directly from Christine's website)

Narrow Escape in Norway: An Agnes Kelly Mystery - middle-grade must readNEW RELEASE!!  Narrow Escape in Norway

The laughs, thrills, and hijinks continue for young and old alike in Book II of the Agnes Kelly Mystery Adventure Series, the much-anticipated follow-up to the Award-Winning "Intrigue in Istanbul." But there is more! Grandma and Agnes get in over their heads and end up putting their very lives at risk.

Now Grandma Agee and I are a team, like Charlie Chan and his two kids (I can’t remember their names) or Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I’m really excited that she is going to keep looking for information about my dad and that Grandma wants me to help. So I’ve got to do what Mr. Morrison, our neighbor, always tells us kids: Carpe diem! Seize the day! ...

So I’m on my way to Norway. I want to be able to tell my mom and my brothers what happened to my dad. It’s sinking in more and more that he’s really gone, and I think it would help all of us if we knew the truth. I know it would help me. But if I’m going to help Grandma find out what really happened, I need more information. And the person I need to talk to is sitting right beside me.


TO PURCHASE:    Kindle          Hardcover (dirctly from Christine's website)

Thanks so much for stopping by and talking with me, Christine! 

Can you tell us about the different jobs you’ve had other than writing?

My education was in Physical Therapy, which I did for 30 years. I started writing about 7 years before I stopped working as a therapist and started my publishing company: CKBooks Publishing.

How long have you been writing and how long ago did you publish your first book?

I started writing in college but once I graduated, work and eventually a family put that on a back shelf. About 2003 I started working on my first book, which I then published in 2007.

If there’s anything that you could go back and tell your ‘unpublished’ self, what would that be?

Good question. I guess it would be to take your time getting everything as "right" as you can before you put your book out there. Many times (and it still happens) I have had my books printed and I find more than just one or two errors. It's frustrating but something I should expect and, so I need to wait longer before printing and go over my proof a good 3-4 weeks after I have the proof printed and it has been proofed by others. Time really helps to make those small errors stand out.

I love that you write both for adults and for the children’s market. And as you can tell from my review above, I’m a big fan of your Agnes Kelly mystery series. (While these books are aimed at the middle-grade audience, I have to make sure that everyone understands how lovely these stories are for adults as well.) What was your inspiration for those books?   

I am a big fan of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce mystery series and reading those really inspired me to come up with an American version of Flavia - so Agnes Kelly was born. She's an amalgam of a German/Irish heritage, as I am, and she has only brothers for siblings, like I did.

Can you tell us a little bit about how your ideas develop as a writer? Do you have a clear vision of the main characters from the beginning? Do you outline?

I have a general idea of my character before I write and as I research the time and place my character lives in, more of that character's features develop. The amount I outline varies and how I do it. Most of the time, I write down a skeletal outline or at minimal, I have it set in my mind. When I write, I don't worry about chapters, I just write. Sometimes chapter endings are obvious, sometimes they are not, and I figure that out later. Not having the story outline or structure down has its drawbacks because at some point you have to go back and make sure that story structure is there to some degree. 

As a writer of both novels for adults and children, what appeals to you about writing for different audiences.                                                                               

The fun thing about writing for kids, I get to be funnier and make fun of adults. As adults we do some silly things because we think we need to and kids see this for the silliness that it is and it's fun to illustrate things like that. Writing for adults is enjoyable for me because I usually write about something I have to research, whether it's about a person or time period. I really enjoy history and learning, and I like sharing the information I've found out about with others in what I think is an enjoyable way to learn - through fiction.

Of all the books you’ve written . . . and there have been quite a few . . . do you have a favorite or is that rather like asking a parent which child is their favorite?         

As a fellow writer, you know how hard a question this is. As an author, you like different books for different reasons. But if I have to pick, I guess I like Intrigue in Istanbul. I enjoyed introducing readers to Agnes and her adventure.

I am always curious about other author’s writing environments . . . so where do bring all your wonderful characters to life?

I can write pretty much anywhere but I have two places at home where I write the most. I have an office in our guest bedroom, but I face a corner and sometimes that's a good thing - keeps me focused on what I'm doing - and sometimes I like to sit out in our dining room/living room. We live in the country and we have lots of windows in that space, so I enjoy seeing the birds at our feeders and the sun. Once I start writing, I get into it enough that my surroundings don't get in my way. If I'm not really into it, then it also doesn't matter where I am, I will distract myself ;) 

Can we look forward to another book from you soon? 

I just put my second Agnes book, Narrow Escape in Norway, up online, so I'm just starting on the research for book 3 in the series (the final installment of this Adventure). I'll let you in on a little secret about book 3 - Agnes and her grandmother are heading to Russia!  I have taken some books out of the library, of course, but serendipity has stepped in, as it often does, and sent me a contact in Russia. I don't know anyone who lives or has even traveled to Russia, so to find someone who grew up there and still lives there is wonderful. The Agnes stories take place in 1961, so it's a great help to have someone who has family that is old enough to remember life in Russia in 1961. 

Before we move on to the Fast Five list, is there anything else you want to tell readers about yourself or your books?                                                                                                                              

To celebrate the publication of Narrow Escape in Norway, I have Intrigue in Istanbul on sale for .99! I'll probably keep this sale going through the holidays, so if you are looking for a fun family adventure to share with your kids, now's the time to pick up both books! If you want hard copies, go to my website for free shipping or to see where I'll be this fall, so we can meet in person:

Fast Five:

Fav Pizza Topping – onions                                                                                                           

Book You’re Reading Now – (which one?  I've always got a couple going at once :) - The Rooster Bar (audio book) by John Grisham

Coffee, Tea, or Both – Tea only

Fav TV Show as a Child – The Carol Burnett Show

Best Place You’ve Vacationed – New York City

How can readers discover more about you and you work?

Website: or
Blog: or for writers -
Twitter: @cmkbooks
Amazon Author Page:

Thanks so much, Christine!! And as I promised above, here's the info on Christine Keleny's Rose series I loved so much! Visit her website or click on the e-book purchase links below for ordering:

Rose Series Book 1 - Rosebloom - Award-winning Historical FictionA Burnished Rose - Book 2 in the Rose Series - Historical Fiction Must-ReadRose from the Ashes - Book 3 in the Rose Series - Must-Read Historical Fiction

To Purchase on Kindle:    Rosebloom (Book 1)   A Burnished Rose (Book 2)   Rose from the Ashes (Book 3)

Step into the life of Rose, a precocious young girl in 1930s Wisconsin, who runs away from home to avoid what she sees as a certain path to marriage and motherhood. What she seeks is adventure. What she finds is much more.


Rose is thrown into the lives of the varied people and towns of the Mississippi while working on river boats, going to a prep school in St. Louis where she lives with a black family in the Ville, and working in a bordello in New Orleans (not as a call girl, of course. She is a Catholic girl from the Midwest after all). What she doesn't anticipate are the close relationships that develop with many of the women she encounters. She also discovers the harshness of the world far away from the security of home. Ultimately, Rose realizes what is most important in her life: her family and her friends.


Rosebloom takes place at a time in history that buffets Rose between the great depression and the coming wave of World War II. She gets herself into situations through her naiveté and also just by chance that test her resolve and teach her not only about herself but about the world of others which she would have never know if she hadn't left her small farm in Southwest Wisconsin.

November 9, 2017

Wisconsin author Barbara Britton’s third book in the Tribes of Israel series releases in e-book TODAY!!

I am thrilled to be part of Barbara’s author journey and have enjoyed the first two titles in this series immensely. Jerusalem Rising: Adah’s Journey was no exception and I was grateful to be honored with an advance copy! The author is a master at creating characters we love (or ones we love to dislike). The vivid descriptions are woven into a fast-paced plotline that transport you back to Biblical times when women were most certainly expected to know their place in society. (And those who didn’t were dealt with harshly.) Outspoken Adah has you holding your breath as you wonder what speaking the truth may cost her. I highly recommend this book to all readers. 

YOU CAN WIN A COPY OF THE E-BOOK!! Winners will be picked from those who leave a comment below this post! (Winners will be chosen 10 am CST Monday, November 13.)


Jerusalem Rising - Book Release & Contest


When Adah bat Shallum finds the governor of Judah weeping over the crumbling wall of Jerusalem, she learns the reason for Nehemiah’s unexpected visit—God has called him to rebuild the wall around the City of David.

 Nehemiah challenges the men of Jerusalem to labor on the wall and in return, the names of their fathers will be written in the annals for future generations to cherish. But Adah has one sister and no brothers. Should her father who rules a half-district of Jerusalem be forgotten forever?

Adah bravely vows to rebuild her city’s wall, though she soon discovers that Jerusalem not only has enemies outside of the city, but also within. Can Adah, her sister, and the men they love, honor God’s call? Or will their mission be crushed by the same rocks they hope to raise. 

If you can't wait to see if you might win a copy, click here to purchase right now!

The first two books in the Tribes of Israel series are available in paperback and e-book. (Aren't these covers absolutely GORGEOUS?)

Providence: Hannah's Journey - 5-StarsBuilding Benjamin: Naomi's Journey - 5-Star Read


Providence: Hannah's Journey:   

Paperback    Kindle  

Building Benjamin: Naomi's Journey:   Paperback    Kindle





In the writing world, authors are often asked about their platform . . . the base from which they can reach readers with their books. A few years into my own writing journey, I echo Barbara’s sentiment from her guest post below that Platform equals People.

Platform = People

by Barbara M. Britton

I am so excited to be sharing my e-book release of Jerusalem Rising: Adah’s Journey with you, Val. Your blog was one of the first I visited when my debut novel launched. Our paths keep connecting at various events and conferences. We just spent a joyous two days talking to librarians and catching up on life’s happenings in the exhibit hall of the Wisconsin Library Association Conference.

Recently I attended the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Dallas, and the elusive “platform” word was discussed. An agent told us that some industry professionals think that having a large social media following is important for authors, and other agents think it doesn’t really matter. Which is it? Authors would like to know. What we have, you and I, is real connection. Our lives intersect and we get to talk and share our journeys face-to-face. Not just in the virtual world.

The first piece of advice I received as a newbie writer was to join a professional writing organization and to attend writing conferences. One can learn a lot about publishing by doing those two things, but the real blessing of getting involved in writing groups is building relationships with fellow writers. Having friends in the writing business is better than having a “like” by someone who doesn’t know you at all.

When did we meet? I don’t remember if it was at the Writers’ Institute in Madison, or at a SCBWI event, or at a local author festival, or a charity gala. We keep bumping into each other and working together which is awesome. Writing can be a solitary adventure, but it’s more fun if it is done in a community of friends.

I write about people in Bible times. The internet and social media wasn’t even a dream. People socialized with neighbors by their tents, at the well, or in the marketplace. They knew people by doing life together. Someone lived next to Uncle Abram, who knew Levite Ben, who to talked to Sister Susanna, and so on.

If you’re a writer, reader, or in the business world, try to meet one new person this week as you live your life. You never know where that conversation will lead, but you will be building the best “platform.”

Barbara's Fast Five:

Fav Pizza ToppingPepperoni- I know it’s bad for you but it’s so tasty

Book You’re Reading NowThe Texas Rancher’s New Family by Allie Pleiter-Inspirational romance

Coffee, Tea, or Both Iced tea

Fav TV Show as a Child The Munsters or Mister Roger’s Neighborhood

Best Place You’ve Vacationed Hawaii

Discover more about Barb on her website, Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Barb’s biography:

Barbara M. Britton was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but currently lives in Southeast Wisconsin and loves the snow—when it accumulates under three inches. Barb writes romantic adventures for teens and adults in the Christian fiction and Mainstream markets. She is published in Biblical fiction and enjoys bringing little known Bible characters to light in her stories. Barb is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America and Wisconsin Romance Writers of America. She has a nutrition degree from Baylor University but loves to dip healthy strawberries in chocolate.





October 30, 2017

Blessed Samhain from the Circle of Nine by Valerie BielThis time of year is one of my favorites—not only because fall is such a lovely season, but more for the mysterious, magical holiday of Samhain. (Yes, I know you thought it was Halloween!) Last year, I wrote a blog post about the tradition of Samhain and how many of our modern-day Halloween traditions come from this sacred pagan holiday. I love that an essential part of writing believable fictional tales is researching and learning about so many interesting things. On the Celtic Wheel of the Year, Samhain (pronounced saah-win or saa-ween) marks the beginning of the spiritual new year. Samhain comes from the Gaelic word “samhuin” which means summer’s end. It’s the traditional start of winter and marks the New Year as one of the eight annual Celtic festivals.

The characters in my Circle of Nine series follow the holidays on the Celtic Wheel of the Year.

The Celtic Wheel of the Year - Eight Pagan Holidays



















In honor of this wonderful holiday, I’m sharing the Samhain Celebration excerpt from Circle of Nine: Beltany.  Samhain Bonfire Celebration - A Book Excerpt

About a half hour before midnight, Phoebe and the other women went into the house to change into their robes for the ceremony, leaving their clothes folded neatly on the sofa. Each of the nine wore a different color, all of them in bright shades except for Carmen. She wore a soft butter yellow, which complemented her black hair very well. They walked single file out the door and back to the gathering.

All conversation stopped when the women reached the middle of the lawn where preparations had been made for the bonfire. Phoebe’s quiet incantation held the guests’ attention.

“The year is done, we bid farewell

In the past, we will not dwell

The flame of old we burn tonight

Is gone for good, turn out the light”

Phoebe thrust her arms in the air, her palms facing up, and all candles and torches sputtered out. It was a moonless night, and Phoebe’s voice, louder now, sounded otherworldly coming out of the darkness.

“The year anew, we welcome you

Goddess, guide us in all we do.”

The torch in front of Phoebe hissed as it sprang to life, illuminating her face.

She held the torch and brought its flame down low, walking in a circle to light the kindling at the edges of the bonfire. Back at her starting place, she threw her torch into the middle of the fire and backed away as the flames roared to life.

Phoebe continued, “We celebrate our life and remember those who have gone before us. Let us feel their presence tonight as we honor them with a minute of silence.”

Some spent the minute staring into the flames, others reached out to hold hands, and a few bowed their heads in grief. As the minute concluded, Phoebe spoke again, “We make our circle to remind ourselves that our journey is without beginning or end. Our energy is ever present.” Like jewels on a bracelet, the nine robed women surrounded the fire. Then a second, larger circle of participants formed and then another and another, until everyone was united in rings around the blazing fire.

Someone started singing, and they all joined in as they continued to rotate. In the blur of joyous faces, the old year slipped away.

If this small excerpt intrigued you and you want to read more, the purchase links for the series are below.

To purchase Circle of Nine: Beltany:   Paperback   Kindle

To purchase Circle of Nine: Novella Collection (Book Two):  Paperback   Kindle

To purchase Circle of Nine: Sacred Treasures (Book Three):   Paperback    Kindle

Celebrate the Eight Celtic Holidays with the Circle of Nine






Have a great Samhain and Happy Halloween! - Valerie



October 24, 2017

October Writers' Forum - The Best Book Event and Publishing Information in One PlaceIn my journey through the steps of independent publishing, refining my writing skills, and most recently completing a successful agent search, I’ve come across some excellent information, tips, tools, and shortcuts that I think would be beneficial to any writer. Once a month, I’ll share the “best of” information and news from the publishing industry as well as feature other authors and writing instructors with tips to share. I am incredibly thankful for the assistance and advice given to me from writing and publishing professionals and am happy pay that forward. On a professional level, I also use my publicity and editorial skills to aid other authors through my company Lost Lake Press

November Book Events in Wisconsin Wisconsin Book Festival - Featured Authors & Events

The Wisconsin Book Festival is celebrating its 15th year with a diverse schedule of events featuring authors of every genre from October 27 to November 5 (and additional events all year long.)

Additionally, we are very fortunate in southern/south-central Wisconsin to have indie bookstores with extensive schedules of author/book events. In fact, there are so many in November that I can't fit them all here. Please check out your favorite bookstore's event schedule by clicking below.

Mystery to Me Bookstore, 1863 Monroe Street, Madison 

A Room of One’s Own, 315 W. Gorham Street, Madison 

Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer, Milwaukee

Books & Company, 1039 Summit Avenue, Oconomowoc

Featured Subject

The Most Up-to-date Indie Author Advice - Indie Author FringeAlliance of Independent Authors and Indie Author Fringe

If you are an indie author or contemplating taking that plunge, you must familiarize yourself with the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and their online conferences called Indie Author Fringe, which are “fringe” to the major global publishing fairs. ALLi “brings together the most up-to-date self-publishing education and information available and broadcasts it to authors everywhere.” 

The recent schedule of online sessions offered in conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair included many excellent pre- and post-publication topics. Here are my favorites:

Seven New Trends in Digital Book Advertising for Authors with Mark Dawson

Finding Your Profitable Niche as an Indie Author with Dave Chesson

The Economics of Audio Books: An Author Case Study by Ian Sutherland

Do Facebook Ads Really Work for Books? The Facts: Michael Alvear

Bookbub Ads for Beginners by Adam Croft (Yes, you can advertise with Bookbub even if you can’t seem to land a daily featured deal.)

There were also plenty of sessions focused on getting started in self-publishing if are weighing your options. Really a treasure trove of information and a great place to start as you’re educating yourself about the indie publishing industry.

Pre-Publication Information

Find the Right Images for Your Blog (for FREE)Using the Right Images for Your Blog or Social Media

This might seem like the least of your worries as you begin your publishing journey. After all, you’re supposed to be spending your time WRITING. However, you will at some point write a blog and/or curate your brand and message to followers via social media platforms. You’ll be including images in those posts and those Images Matter! You will always have higher engagement if you use images. (Here’s a fabulous article on that gives you the image specs for most social media sites.) tells us how to pick the right images for our blog posts. My favorite piece of advice is to not be too literal in your choice of images. (This is a mistake that I make somewhat frequently.) 

You want to make sure you’re using photos or graphics that are free to use—if you’re not designing your own graphics or using your own photos. You can always purchase images, but there are many free image-sharing sites that might have exactly what you need. lists 18 sites where you can find photos, also lists free stock images sources.

Pricing Your BooksHow to Price Your Book

This question always comes up. How do I price my books? I still wonder if I’ve hit the right price point, and after reading this article by author Dean Wesley Smith, I might make some changes. The nice thing about indie publishing is that this is our decision to make. Whether you are a new or established author, this is worth the read.  

The Newest Issues and Considerations about Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited Program

New Problems for Authors with Kindle UnlimitedMore trials and tribulations over at Amazon . . . are you sick of this subject yet? I’m getting a little tired, however, with such a high percentage of the independently published book market being reliant on Amazon, we must stay informed! Most of the problems are stemming from manipulation of the Kindle Unlimited program, which is the subscription service for readers that authors enroll their books into and are paid for the pages read.

The following articles were all written by independent publishing expert and author David Gaughran, who is a wealth of information and writes detailed articles on so many subjects important to succeeding in the indie pub world.

Here’s the quick scoop: 

Gaughran first tells us about Amazon’s fake book problem in a detailed article in June—explaining how some bad actors are using clickfarms to manipulate the best seller charts.

He then explains how he decided to take the leap and test his books on Kindle Unlimited in August, using some of their built-in promos like Countdown Deals. (This means his e-books were exclusive to Amazon and couldn’t be available for purchase anywhere else.) Check out the crazy stuff that happened to him in this article:

Then later in August, he provides a summary article about the Kindle experience that is worth a read (even if you aren’t exclusive to Kindle.) 

Just last week, Gaughran details the saga of Amazon attacking legit authors but seeming to continue to ignore the scammers, making for a difficult time for a few relatively well-known indie authors in his article: Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives. (The title made me laugh, but really this isn’t funny as it is costing legit authors some serious money.)

Most recently, Gaughran writes a smart analysis of the conundrum indie authors face – whether to embrace Kindle exclusivity or go wide with your marketing strategies. 

No matter what strategy you decide on, at least you’ll be up-to-speed as you market your books. I find that David Gaughran is a partner we can trust for solid info!


Independently Published Authors – Libraries Are for You!

Librarians Want Indie Pub BooksI recently spent two days at the Wisconsin Library Association hanging around with some of my favorite people, and I was surprised and pleased by how many librarians asked how they could find well-written independently published books. What a great question! The authors in attendance referred librarians to winning contest lists for indie and small presses and to sites like IndieBRAG that only give a gold medallion to books that meet their high standards. (If you haven't submitted your books for consideration over at IndieBRAG, you should do so immediately. This supportive community provides excellent indie book recognition and advice.)

This reminds me that those of us who have been intrepid enough to publish independently should not shy away from the library market. This article by Amy Collins on the Book Designer website remains relevant more than a year after its initial publication and provides a succinct 9-step list on how to get your books into libraries.

The Evolution of Libraries

Libraries are a hub for so much more than books. Nowhere was this more evident than at last week’s conference . . . Wisconsin like most other states provides exemplary services to patrons well beyond book lending and incorporates new trends and technologies. There’s so much our libraries have to offer. An article I bookmarked a year ago by best-selling author of “The Memory Box” Eva Lesko Natiello recognizes how the ability of libraries to embrace what’s new can only bode well for the independent author. 

8 Steps to Make the Most of a Professional Book ReviewHow to Make the Most of a Professional Book Review

You’ve landed a wonderful review from a professional or editorial book reviewer. Now what? After you’ve done your happy dance around your desk, you need to jump into action to make the most of this praise. The BookBaby blog lists eight things to do with this review. It’s important to make sure it is visible to potential readers and seven of the eight steps address this. However, the most important step might be what you do with a not-so-great review . . . don’t take it personally but definitely see if there’s anything in the reader’s critique that can improve your writing. 

As always, I hope that these articles help you on your writing and publishing journey!

Happy Reading & Writing, Valerie  



October 17, 2017

Use suspense techniques to strengthen your writing.

How to use the techniques of suspense to strengthen your writing





The modern world is one of immediate gratification and this phenomenon is reflected in entertainment and media sources. For example, in the genre of mystery writing, a murder almost always happens within the first few pages. In screenwriting, the main idea or theme should be delineated by the third page or the first few minutes. On a website, the “hero” message should be at the top of the site; otherwise, viewers will click elsewhere.

In September, I discussed the benefits of exercise as a support to one’s writing. This month, in honor of October, the spookiest of seasons, I offer ideas about suspense and how its techniques may boost one’s writing, no matter one’s preferred genre.

Suspense Writing Techniques Improve Your Writing - No Matter Your GenreSuspense vs. mystery

Modern mysteries are formulaic. (Note: I make no observation about whether that is good or bad, it just is.) Writers, especially new writers, are directed to kill someone or offer a crime within the first pages lest readers become bored. Whereas, building suspense is old school: At its best, a likable character is introduced, emotional connections are built, and then tension is increased and the protagonist is dumped into an antagonist’s world of impossible dilemmas. The crime or major offense occurs well into the story. This structure requires artful writing in that emotional connections (rather than a horrific event) is the bridge between character and reader. Arguably, building that bridge requires stronger writing skills and a higher knowledge of craft.

I assert that suspense writing offers fantastic opportunities to improve one’s craft, no matter the preferred genre: First, suspense writing demands establishing an emotional connection with readers; second, it offers multiple points of view; and finally, it requires delicate weaving of backstory into the narrative.

Establishing an emotional connection

In an immediate-payoff mystery format, the “why” of a crime is less important than the action of solving the crime. Often, a murderer’s motive is revealed in the denouement. A few paragraphs or pages are offered about the criminal’s intent and then the focus of the story returns to the crime solvers rather than the criminal.

In suspense, a bridge must be established between reader and protagonist; a connection must be made with the hero; otherwise, readers won’t care what happens. Methods to create this connection include:

Create a character who is both likable and flawed, and put him (or her) in a world that fascinates. Create a protagonist who possesses something your target reader can identify with: An age, a job, a certain “look,” a sense of humor, a life perspective, or even a pet. Anything that will draw a reader in; remember, you’re not pursuing all readers, just those who enjoy books in your genre or sub-genre.

Improve Your Writing - Using the Elements of Suspense


As an exercise, list the traits that would attract your target readers and create a character who has a few of them. After that, incorporate a fatal flaw that will be used to hamper your main character’s life. For certain, that flaw will impact the story. Your hero’s fear of water will definitely put him in a boat somewhere with bad guys threatening, right? Further, the world that your hero lives in should be somewhere where you want to be: What makes this world unique? Is it busy? Isolated? Beautiful? Think about it. Use this exercise to let your mind wander, then write a page about this character and the world he or she resides in.


Multiple Points of View

Suspense requires writing multiple points of view in that the reader must be connected to both the protagonist and antagonist. To maximize pressure on the good guy — which is what creates great suspense — it’s necessary to know the motivation of the bad guy. Further, the bad guy can’t be all bad as that would be a caricature and not believable. The bad guy has to have sympathetic traits to make him or her seem real.


As an exercise, free-write a page or two about each character’s history, considering both points of view. Remember, the purpose is to build an emotional connection with the reader.


Backstory Required

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, weaving backstory into the narrative is a delicate process. Too much and the forward momentum lags; not enough and the reader is left with unanswered questions that can be frustrating or cause a disconnect. When writing suspense, the purpose is to build an emotional connection with the reader; thus, knowing the motivations of the protagonist and antagonist are vital. A brief history of character-affecting events should be included in the story. A good process in this regard is to write a history of each character and include bits and pieces of it only after the first draft has been completed. Write the story without asides, flashbacks, and comments or paragraphs about previous events — it takes practice! Just get the story on the page without them. After the first draft is complete, upon revision add only what is necessary to connect the dots to get to the why of the characters’ behaviors. (Weaving backstory is a process that may be easier if a second set of eyes reads the first draft and offers feedback about where the holes are.)


As an exercise, using the histories you composed about the protagonist and antagonist, circle five important events or traits that affect their behaviors. Rank them. Which of these does the reader absolutely need to know? Is it possible to drop one or two? If you can reduce the list to three, you’re on track. Anything more than that likely is unnecessary.


The suspense-writing techniques that establish an emotional connection with readers are worthy of consideration. The exercises described above shouldn’t take more than a few hours; it’s something to do on a rainy weekend. And, as always, I recommend contemplating these ideas while on a walk or a bike ride.

Next month, I’ll talk about why I’m thankful for being a writer.


Blog Shout Out - Now NovelBlog Shout Out: Now Novel

The Now Novel blog is refreshingly simple; the blog post titles are succinct and the website itself is easy to navigate. It’s worth a look if you’re searching for an all-inclusive site that offers a myriad of ideas. Happy writing!

October 10, 2017

A "Just What You Need" Read - Humorous, DelightfulI absolutely loved I Temporarily Do by Ellie Cahill (the not-so-secret pen name of author Liz Czukas). It all starts with a marriage of convenience between two wonderfully written and believable characters who don't mean to fall in love. They really don't! And I'm not giving away anything here--this is a romance novel after all. Of course, they fall in love. But what happens next is what makes the story so delicious. I just love a story that makes me laugh out loud. I was so glad to learn there that this is the first book in Cahill's Cordially Invited duo. Can't wait for the next installment. 

About the book: 

A little white lie. A little white wedding. A pair of roommates in over their heads.
Days before she's set to move across the country and start a prestigious graduate program, a con artist leaves Emmy with no where to live and less than zero dollars in her bank account. But her day doesn't seem quite so bad compared to Beckett's--his fiancée called off their wedding just days before they tie the knot. Now he's single and ineligible for his place in married student housing.
So what are a girl without a home and a guy without a wife supposed to do? A quickie wedding in Vegas will solve both their problems. It's a business arrangement, and no one even needs to know. They'll just get an annulment in a few months. What could go wrong? Only Beckett forgot to mention his new apartment is a one-bedroom. And neither of them counted on their new friends at Middlesex University thinking they're a great couple. The platonic newlywed game might be harder to play than Emmy thought. Especially when it starts to feel less than platonic.

To Purchase:   Kindle   Paperback

I'm so glad Liz agreed to let me pepper her with questions here today, because she's really busy writing great stories for us! 

Can you tell us about the different jobs you’ve had other than writing? I always like to ask authors this, mainly because authors always seem to have had so many different careers and often an interesting job history.

Before I was published, I was a Labor & Delivery nurse for 9 years! I have a master's degree in Nurse-Midwifery as well, although I never practiced as a midwife. But I only went to nursing school after I realized that my undergrad degree in History and Anthropology wasn't exactly a hot commodity on the job market! Writing is by far my favorite job.

How long have you been writing and how long ago did you publish your first book?

I've been writing as long as I can remember. Terrible stories as a kid, novels, short stories, non-fiction for a health information website, fan name it. I wrote it. My first book didn't come out until 2014, but it definitely wasn't the first book I wrote!

If there’s anything that you could go back and tell your ‘unpublished’ self, what would that be?

Patience is a virtue. It can feel very "do or die" in publishing, but the truth is, humans have been making and reading books since we figured out how to communicate. Stories aren't going anywhere, so it's okay to take your time, and it's okay if publishers don't like your first offering.

Is there anyone/anything you would consider the most inspirational or influential in your success as a writer and why?

My senior year English teacher told me that I was a good writer. In fact, he told me he'd give me my money back if I didn't get a 5 on the AP English test. I got the 5 so he got to keep his money. But the things he taught me about reading and writing stuck with me. I dedicated to my first book to him (and my other high school English teachers, actually, because they all had an influence on me in one way or another.)

Liz Czukas YA Titles -- Must Reads for Laughs & LoveAs you can see from my review above, that I loved “I Temporarily Do”, which you wrote as Ellie Cahill. I know that you also write books under your real name—Liz Czukas. Can you tell us a little bit about how your pen name came to be and how the books you author as Liz Czukas differ from each other?

First of all, thank you so much! I'm glad you loved it. I was first published as Liz Czukas. All my books under that name are YA, intended for teen readers. When I got an offer on my first adult-oriented book "When Joss Met Matt", my publisher wanted me to have a separate identity so readers would know what they were getting. Thus, Ellie Cahill was born. It's handy having a name like Elizabeth, because there are so many good nicknames to use for author personas. And as for Cahill, I wanted something people could actually pronounce!! (Incidentally, Czukas is pronounced CHEW-kiss, or two fun things to do with your mouth.) Although I have a lot of cross-over readers, there are definitely people who prefer one type of book over the other. If you are someone who reads multiple genres, I think it's safe to say that if you like one of my books, you'll like the rest. I'm all about the fun, romantic-comedy feeling in both YA and adult.

Can you please explain the difference between the Young Adult (YA) and New Adult (NA) genres? (I still find people who don’t know that the new adult genre exists.)

New Adult is basically a fancy title for books about people who aren't teenagers, but aren't living the responsible lives of "grown-ups" yet. It can be about college students, or people in the military, or athletes...anyone who is still kind of figuring out who they want to be as adults.

Can you tell us a little bit about how your ideas develop as a writer? Do you have a clear vision of the main characters from the beginning? Do you outline?

Every project is a little different for me. Sometimes the idea for a character comes first. Sometimes just the spark of an idea. Some ideas start as sparks, but can't go anywhere until I combine them with other ideas or characters. I'm not a full outliner. I am a planner, though. I write out a 1-3 page synopsis that gives me a rough plan for where I want to go with my story. Ellie Cahill Novels - Humor & Love Must Reads

As a writer of middle-grade/young-adult stories, I often get asked why I write stories for this age group. What appeals to you about writing for the young adult and new adult age groups.

I like writing for these age groups because the characters still have so much to learn. They haven't become set in their ways, or bogged down by the drudgery of adulting, like paying mortgages and grocery shopping. Instead, they still have the chance to learn about new things, and who they want to be. They're open to new ideas and possibility. Plus, the intensity of relationships is so strong at these ages. First love, first kisses, first heartbreaks. So much more juicy than later in life.

Of all the books you’ve written (and there have been quite a few) do you have a favorite or is that rather like asking a parent which child is their favorite?

Ha! Definitely like asking my favorite child. I like them all for different reasons. Some, like Ask Again Later, were so much fun to write because of the structure. Others have characters that I practically feel like old friends, like "When Joss Met Matt". Some have favorite scenes or lines of dialogue. That's the joy of writing a lot--there's always something new and unique.

I am always curious about other author’s writing environments . . . so where do bring all your wonderful characters to life?

Nowhere special! I don't have an office at my house. So I'm usually working on my couch on kitchen table. I also meet up with other local writer friends and do some writing at coffee shops, or libraries. If I'm lucky, I get to go on multi-day writing retreats with other fabulous writers and get to immerse myself in nothing but making the words appear on the screen for days and days. 

Can we look forward to another book from you soon?

Yes! I have another romantic comedy coming out as Ellie Cahill in November. It's called "The Designated +1", and it features a character who made a very brief appearance in "I Temporarily Do". Don't worry though, it's a complete stand-alone. You can read it without reading any of my other books. It's up for preorder at Amazon, Kobo, and iBooks.

Before we move on to the Fast Five list, is there anything else you want to tell readers about yourself or your books?

Just that I can almost guarantee you a laugh if you read my books. When you need a pick-me-up read, keep me in mind!

Fast Five:

Fav Pizza Topping – mushrooms

Book You’re Reading Now – Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes

Coffee, Tea, or Both – both, but especially latte

Fav TV Show as a Child – Tiny Toon Adventures

Best Place You’ve Vacationed – Rome

How can readers discover more about you and you work?

Facebook: Liz Czukas OR Ellie Cahill 
Twitter: @LizCzukas OR  @Ellie_Cahill


Amazon Author Page: Liz-Czukas OR Ellie-Cahill
Goodreads: Liz_Czukas OR Ellie_Cahill 

Thanks, Liz, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with me today!


October 3, 2017

13 Witchy Books to Make your Month MagicalThey say you write what you want to read, and I’m no exception. I love some good old-fashioned (and newly imagined) witchy magic at any time of year but particularly as we enjoy the days leading up to Halloween. No matter your age, here are some fabulous witchy tales to enjoy this month. (I didn’t include the Harry Potter series because it’s a given that these books should lead any list in the witching/wizarding world.) 

Picture Books

13 Witchy Books for a Magical October Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler

The witch and her cat are happily flying through the sky on a broomstick when the wind picks up and blows away the witch's hat, then her bow, and then her wand!  Luckily, three helpful animals find the missing items, and all they want in return is a ride on the broom. But is there room on the broom for so many friends? Copy And when disaster strikes, will they be able to save the witch from a hungry dragon?


Piggie Pie by Margie Palatini and Howard Fine13 Witchy Books for a Magical October

Gritch the Witch is grouchy, grumpy, and very hungry. The only thing that could make her happy is something extra special for lunch, and that is: Piggie Pie! Gritch zooms off on her broomstick to find eight plump piggies -- where else? -- on Old MacDonald's Farm. Cleverly disguised pigs impersonate ducks, chickens, a cow, and Old MacDonald himself, as this uproarious, quick-paced story builds to an ironically surprising conclusion. Wacky, hip, and illustrated with bold, bright paintings, "Piggie Pie" adds a new twist to an old fairy-tale scene.

To purchase:  PAPERBACK       HARDCOVER 

13 Witchy Books for a Magical OctoberBig Pumpkin by Erica Silverman and S.D. Schindler

Once there was a witch who longed for pumpkin pie. Unfortunately, the pumpkin she had grown from a seed became so big she simply couldn't get it off the vine. Although "she pulled and she tugged and she pulled...that pumpkin just sat." 

Along came a ghost. "I am bigger than you and stronger, too," said he. "Let me try." 

Well, the witch wanted that whole pumpkin for herself. But she needed help -- Halloween was just hours away... 

With the rhythm and repetition that children love, Erica Silverman tells a rollicking story about a witch who, through her encounter with a ghost and other spooky creatures, discovers both the value of cooperating and the joy of sharing. S.D. Schindler brings this captivating crew to life in spirited paintings that are as warm as they are funny.

To purchase:   PAPERBACK       HARDCOVER

Middle Grade

13 Witchy Books for a Magical OctoberThe Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett13 Witchy Books for a Magical October

In print for the first time in thirty years is Anna Elizabeth’s Bennett classic tale of a little witch who dreams of becoming normal girl.  

To purchase:   PAPERBACK       eBOOK     

The Witches by Roald Dahl

This is not a fairy tale. This is about real witches. Grandmamma loves to tell about witches. Real witches are the most dangerous of all living creatures on earth. There's nothing they hate so much as children, and they work all kinds of terrifying spells to get rid of them. Her grandson listens closely to Grandmamma's stories—but nothing can prepare him for the day he comes face-to-face with The Grand High Witch herself!


13 Witchy Books for a Magical OctoberThe Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Mildred Hubble is starting her first year at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches — and making a mess of it! She can’t ride her broomstick without crashing, she’s always getting her spells mixed up, and worst of all, the teacher’s pet, Ethel, has just become her sworn enemy.

To Purchase:   PAPERBACK     HARDCOVER     eBOOK

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare13 Witchy Books for a Magical October

Sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler is marked by suspicion and disapproval from the moment she arrives on the unfamiliar shores of colonial Connecticut in 1687. Alone and desperate, she has been forced to leave her beloved home on the island of Barbados and join a family she has never met. Torn between her quest for belonging and her desire to be true to herself, Kit struggles to survive in a hostile place. Just when it seems she must give up, she finds a kindred spirit. But Kit’s friendship with Hannah Tupper, believed by the colonists to be a witch, proves more taboo than she could have imagined and ultimately forces Kit to choose between her heart and her duty.


Young Adult

13 Witchy Books for a Magical OctoberHex Hall series by Rachel Hawkins

Three years ago, Sophie Mercer discovered that she is a witch. Her non-gifted mother has been supportive, consulting Sophie’s estranged father—a warlock—only when necessary. But when Sophie attracts too much human attention for a prom-night spell gone horribly wrong, it’s her dad who exiles her to “Hex Hall”, an isolated reform school for wayward Prodigium, a.k.a. witches, fairies, and shape-shifters. By the end of her first day, Sophie has three new enemies, a futile crush on a warlock, a tagalong ghost, and a vampire roommate. Worse, Sophie soon learns that an unknown predator has been attacking students. As a series of blood-curdling mysteries converges, Sophie prepares for the biggest threat of all: an ancient secret society determined to destroy all Prodigium, especially her.

To Purchase:   HARDCOVER    eBOOK

Beautiful Creatures series by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl13 Witchy Books for a Magical October

Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of  Gatlin  has ever seen, and she's struggling to conceal her power, and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever. Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When  Lena  moves into the town's oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them. In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.

To Purchase:   PAPERBACK     eBOOK

13 Witchy Books for a Magical OctoberSweep series by Cate Tiernan

Morgan Rowlands never thought she was anything other than a typical sixteen-year-old girl. But when she meets Cal, a captivatingly handsome coven leader, she makes a discovery that turns her whole world upside down: she is a witch, descended from an ancient and powerful line. And so is Cal. Their connection is immediate and unbreakable; Cal teases out Morgan's power, her love, her magick. But Morgan discovers too soon that her powers are strong, almost too powerful to control. And she begins to suspect that Cal may be keeping secrets from her . . . secrets that could destroy them both.

To Purchase:   PAPERBACK   eBOOK

Adult Fiction

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman 13 Witchy Books for a Magical October

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape. One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic...

To Purchase:     PAPERBACK      eBOOK

13 Witchy Books for a Magical OctoberThe All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

In this tale of passion and obsession, Diana Bishop, a young scholar and a descendant of witches, discovers a long-lost and enchanted alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782, deep in Oxford's Bodleian Library. Its reappearance summons a fantastical underworld, which she navigates with her leading man, vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. Harkness has created a universe to rival those of Anne Rice, Diana Gabaldon, and Elizabeth Kostova, and she adds a scholar's depth to this riveting tale of magic and suspense. The story continues in book two, Shadow of Night, and concludes with The Book of Life.

To Purchase Book One "A Discovery of Witches":   PAPERBACK      eBOOK

Cousins O’Dwyer Series by Nora Roberts (Dark Witch, Shadow Spell, Blood Magick)13 Witchy Books for a Magical October

From Book 1: With indifferent parents, Iona Sheehan grew up craving devotion and acceptance. From her maternal grandmother, she learned where to find both: a land of lush forests, dazzling lakes, and centuries-old legends. Ireland. County Mayo, to be exact. Where her ancestors’ blood and magic have flowed through generations—and where her destiny awaits. 

Iona arrives in Ireland with nothing but her Nan’s directions, an unfailingly optimistic attitude, and an innate talent with horses. Not far from the luxurious castle where she is spending a week, she finds her cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer. And since family is family, they invite her into their home and their lives.

When Iona lands a job at the local stables, she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath. Cowboy, pirate, wild tribal horseman, he’s three of her biggest fantasy weaknesses all in one big, bold package.

Iona realizes that here she can make a home for herself—and live her life as she wants, even if that means falling head over heels for Boyle. But nothing is as it seems. An ancient evil has wound its way around Iona’s family tree and must be defeated. Family and friends will fight with each other and for each other to keep the promise of hope—and love—alive…


To Purchase Book One "Dark Witch":         PAPERBACK    eBOOK

To Purchase Book Two "Shadow Spell":     PAPERBACK    eBOOK

To Purchase Book Three "Blood Magick":   PAPERBACK    eBOOK



What are your favorite witchy reads?? Please share!

Happy Reading, Valerie

September 26, 2017

September Writers' Forum - The Best Book Event and Publishing Information in One PlaceIn my journey through the steps of independent publishing, refining my writing skills, and most recently completing a successful agent search, I’ve come across some excellent information, tips, tools, and shortcuts that I think would be beneficial to any writer. Once a month, I’ll share the “best of” information and news from the publishing industry as well as feature other authors and writing instructors with tips to share. I am incredibly thankful for the assistance and advice given to me from writing and publishing professionals and am happy pay that forward. On a professional level, I also use my publicity and editorial skills to aid other authors through my company Lost Lake Press.

October Book Events in Wisconsin

Well, hello October. You are going to be good to readers here in Wisconsin. I’m having a fangirl moment thinking about all the spectacular authors we have the opportunity to see this month.

At the top of my list is the Fox Cities Book Festival from October 9 – 15. Authors include Laurie Halse Anderson, Nickolas Butler, View the amazing list of authors visiting the 2017 Fox Cities Book FestivalLiz Czukas, Tricia Clasen, Patricia Skalka, and so many more. Check out the whole schedule here. Best of all this festival is free for the attendees.

Mystery to Me Bookstore, 1863 Monroe Street, Madison 

October 4 at 7 pm – Joal Derse Dauer and Elizabeth Ridley discuss Saving Sadie – How a Dog That No One Wanted Inspired the World

October 18 at 5 pm – Steve and Ben Nadler discuss Heretics at the UW-Madison Memorial Library, Room 126

October 19 at 7 pm – Debussy’s Paris – Piano Portraits of the Belle Époque by Catherine Kautsky

October 26 at 7 pm – Michael Stanley will discuss Dying to Live - a Detective Kubu Mystery.

A Room of One’s Own, 315 W. Gorham Street, Madison 

October 3 at 6 pm – Ann Leckie will discuss Provenance and Ancillary Justice.

October 11 at 6 pm – Meet Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands.

October 17 at 6 pm – Alex Lemon will discuss his novel Feverland.

Books & Company, 1039 Summit Avenue, Oconomowoc

October 5 at 6:30 pm – Join Brad Meltzer for an author talk and book signing.

October 6 at 7:30 pm – Michael Perry will present his monologues at the OAC Little Theater.

October 17 at 7:00 pm – Join Kathleen Ernst, author of the Chloe Ellefson Mysteries, for an author talk and book signing.

October 18 at 7:00 pm – A book signing and author talk with Mary Dougherty, author of Life in a Northern Town.

Boswell Books has a number of excellent ticketed events coming up in October. I’m posting the link to their event page now as they can sell out.  (Please note these are often in bigger event venues in the Milwaukee area.) See details here.

October 23 7 pm  - Scott Kelly, author of Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

October 8  4 pm – Rick Riordan, author of Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #3: The Ship of the Dead (and so much more.)

October 29 at 2 pm – Kate DiCamillo, author of La La La: A Story of Hope (and Tales of Despereaux and Because of Winn Dixie.) This event is co-hosted with Books & Company of Oconomowoc.

The 100 Most Challenged BooksAnd . . . we are in the middle of BANNED BOOKS WEEK.

Last month, I challenged you to read a least one book from the list of most-often challenged books through the years during the month of September. Have any of you read a banned book lately? Inquiring minds want to know. I feel like if someone tells me something is banned, it makes me want to read it even more. Right!!??

Featured Subject

Book Piracy (A personal experience this time!)

“Aargh!” Yes, talk like a pirate day was last week, but that was pretty much my reaction to finding my first book being pirated by shady book websites this month. I’ve previously Book Piracy - Top Tips on What to Doaddressed this problem back in February here on the Writers’ Forum, but at that time it wasn’t from personal experience. 

At first, I reported a few of these to Google using the “reporting pirated books” steps in this WikiHow article, which also has a number of great steps to take BEFORE you publish your book. Then I realized just how much time I was spending trying to take down these thieves. Was it worth it? I’m not sure. Dave Chesson on gives some of the same tips on what to do, but also cautions that sometimes it might not be worth the time. He does give step-by-step instruction on what to do to report these sites if you choose to continue. And finally, Bill Peschel’s article “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Ebook Piracy” put this all into perspective.

So, I’ve taken a deep breath and stepped back from internet policing duties. My time is better focused on creating new stories, and that’s a heck of a lot more fun anyway.

Pre-Publication Information

Book Cover Design

There are an infinite number of articles and guides about book cover design. We can’t discount the need for stellar cover design in your book’s overall success. But where to start??

Katie McCoach writes about first impressions and the things your book cover must do to entice the reader to purchase it. The Marketing Christian Books website makes some of the same points and talks about the importance of book covers to get readers to recommend your books to others. To get into the nitty gritty of design, read the Top 8 Design Tips for Self-Publishers by Joel Friedlander on the Book Designer website. (Note: This website is an amazing treasure trove of helpful articles on all self-publishing topics.) And if you are confident you want to be in charge of the design process, Nate Hoffelder lists 14 Sites for Making a Spectacular Book Cover on The Digital Reader website. My best advice is to find books in your genre and look at those that are most successful. Familiarize yourself with the design trends and see how you can incorporate those elements into a book cover that uniquely captures what your book is about.

Dashes & Hyphens - Quick Tips for WritersEditing Topics

I would have appreciated this article about em dashes, en dashes and hyphens at the beginning of my writing journey. It would have saved me a ton of time during the editing process when I had to fix these in my manuscript.  Make sure you know the difference between these three and how to use them.

I had to laugh when I read Ellis Shuman’s article about self-editing “These Words Have Got to Go!” . . . it seemed like Ellis was speaking just to me when noting commonly overused words and phrases. Take a look and see if you’re doing some of these same things.

Work and Writing-Life Balance

Many of us work full-time “day jobs” and then need to fit our writing into the evenings and weekends. Christine Bernard explains how she balanced these challenges in The Work / Writing Juggling Act and R.S. Mollison-Read does a great job with a short list: 5 Tips on Writing a Novel While Working Full-Time. And writer Tracey Kathryn encourages us to get away from the keyboard for physical activity in her article, "Exercise and Writing: Time Away from the Keyboard Boosts Writing Power."

The Value of Writers’ Conferences

Victoria Noe’s article “Rebooting my Writing Career at a Writing Conference” is a great piece of advice on how refocusing over the course of a few days (usually a weekend) and immersing yourself in the craft of writing along with our tribe of other writers can make a huge difference to our success. This article particularly resonated with me as I had just returned from the fall conference of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators. While I was a presenter at this conference, I took the time to attend other sessions and came away with renewed energy and focus for my work in progress and the ability to see clearly the edits needed on a book that is about to go out on submission. Beyond the aspects of craft tutorials, which even seasoned writers need as reminders from time to time, the camaraderie with other writers is invaluable. Knowing that we all suffer from the same creative ups and downs is incredibly therapeutic and can give us the boost to maintain your persistence in this crazy industry.


Book Promotion Demystified

One of the smartest approaches to book marketing that I’ve read in ages comes from the IndieBRAG website. Author Florence Osmund gives excellent advice in her article “Book Promotion Goals and the Strategy Behind Meeting Them.”  These tips aren’t just for the indie author, many traditionally published authors do not get much promotional support from their publishers and need to educate themselves on the steps to effective book promotion. I appreciated this checklist from Belinda Griffin of the Smart Authors Lab as a helpful way to organize your promotional activities. Overall, both of these authors address the importance of an author platform as a component of your promotional efforts. That leads us to . . .

Your Author Platform – What Matters Most?Build Your Author Platform - One Piece at a Time

This question is always asked at writing conferences. What should my author platform include? (Or even what IS an author platform? --- for those at the beginning of their author journey.)

Glenn Miller says, “Your platform is your meaningful marketing presence, as much online as in the real world. It’s the sum of all your audiences and your authority. . .” in his article “Your Author Platform: The Hub and Spokes” on

This article is an excellent summary of what your author platform could and should include and what matters most. And the answer to that question varies a little bit based on what you write, but the approach of dividing up your author platform into a hub and spokes is visually helpful and (I think) makes the whole thing somehow less daunting.

Social media is always a necessary component of an author’s platform. There’s no way around it—we live in a digital age. However, which social media you use the most is somewhat subjective. I will argue that every author needs an excellent website, but after that your activity on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc… needs to be authentic and engaging (not overly pushy or only focused on selling.) If you’re time is limited (and who’s isn’t), pick the social media platform you like the most and use that primarily to engage with fans and potential fans. For instance, you could focus only on Instagram but have those posts feed over to Twitter and Facebook automatically, saving you a lot of time. I personally enjoy Facebook and communicate with other writers and readers there frequently. Not everyone shares my love for Facebook.

Author Deanna Cabinian lists four reasons why she’s stopped using Facebook in this article, but she doesn’t ignore social media entirely. She prefers Instagram—which makes a lot of sense as she writes young adult novels and will find more of her audience on that platform. (The age breakdown on social media platform use in 2016 from Pew Research might be helpful, depending on the genre in which you write.)

Crafting Your Media Pitch for AuthorsCrafting Your Media Pitch

I can’t stress enough how reaching out to traditional media needs to be part of your promotional efforts. This is one of my own areas of expertise as a public relations professional, so I love articles that guide authors through what can be an intimidating process.

First, read “Media Attention: 9 Ways an Author Can Get It” by Chris Well on the Bookworks Blog. He dispenses with some common misperceptions of approaching the media. Then you need to craft your hook and the pitch that will get attention. Penny Sansevieri talks about the Art of the Media Pitch and how to Craft the Perfect Pitch. This is easy-to-understand advice that will walk you through the best way to market your topic/novel. I love her HUH approach—make your pitch Hip, Unique, and Helpful. And finally, she reminds us that there’s a lot of value in approaching regional and local media in her article “Finding Readers Nextdoor: Network in Your Neighborhood.”  Yup—I’m a Penny Sansevieri fan and you should be, too!

I hope that these articles helped you on your writing and publishing journey!

Happy Reading & Writing, Valerie  



September 23, 2017

Time away from the keyboard boosts writing power





If you’re a planner like me, you’re contemplating New Year’s resolutions. Fall is the perfect time to consider goals for 2018. Cool air and long walks—without the stress of the holiday season—affords time to consider next steps and plans to achieve them. A favorite writer’s group leader of mine offers the S.M.A.R.T. acronym as a guide for reaching a goal: it must be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. I like it because it’s a great goal-setting process that goes beyond simply writing down one’s future objectives.

In June, July, and August, I offered writing prompts regarding seasons, time, and plot ascension. This month, I’ll discuss exercise as a means to reach writing goals, with a bit of healthful living thrown in. One of the benefits of writing is that it can be accomplished away from the devices we use to do it. What’s not to appreciate about that?

S.M.A.R.T. goals as writing and walking exercises5 SMART Ways Exercise Can Give Your Writing a Boost

Study after study reveals that exercise is good for us. I think exercise is great for writers. There’s nothing better for me than a long walk in the chilly morning air to organize my thoughts. Using the S.M.A.R.T. acronym, my exercise process goes like this:

1. Specific. While walking, I’ll contemplate a specific scene and let my brain ponder how I want events to unfold. I’ll ask myself questions: Why would the character do that? What’s motivating him or her? I keep my thoughts focused on one specific scene.

2. Measurable. Did I resolve the questions in my mind regarding the scene? By limiting my thoughts to a certain scene, I’ll know after my walk if I’ve come to a satisfactory conclusion or if the scene still isn’t resolved. Either way, I’ll write down my thoughts so I can refer to them later.

3. Achievable. Contemplating one, perhaps two, scenes during a walk is doable for me. I may contemplate the same scene during several outdoor excursions. I’m not overwhelming myself with big picture questions, which can be frustrating and distracting. I know that, with time, I will resolve the scene and move on to the next one.

4. Realistic. How do we write? One word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. How do we walk? One step at a time. A twenty-minute walk to contemplate one scene is realistic to me. I’m not defeating myself by thinking I have to run a marathon in one day, nor write a book in a week.

5. Timely. Setting a walking goal is similar to a writing goal. Ten-thousand steps a day, four pages a day. It could be more or less; what’s important is that it works for one’s life and writing schedule.

What works for you? A friend has a wrist device that not only monitors her steps, it cheerfully tings at her every hour or so as a reminder to get up and move. By using it, she avoids being frozen behind her computer, her fingers locked on the keyboard and her back slouched in a painful curve. I use something else, however. I am the faithful keeper of a delightful-but-demanding Pomeranian pup whose internal clock rivals the one at the Royal Observatory; he knows when it’s time for us to walk!

Get Outside to Boost Your Writing ProductivityEnjoy the outdoors

Of course, I don’t always use the S.M.A.R.T. process when I’m walking. There are times when I listen to music and sweat rather than contemplate specifics such as scene writing or New Year’s resolutions. There are times when I must allow my mind to wander without restrictions; in fact, that was the point of my June and July blog posts. I can’t always be laser-focused. My creative mind must be allowed to soak in its surroundings to enjoy cool air and fall colors. And, naturally, a side benefit of using exercise to achieve writing goals is that it assists in toning muscles and keeping one in good physical condition.

Finally, when I contemplated this blog post, my reference point was the wonderful Sue Grafton. Note her response to a question about her creative process in this interview from 1999. She not only walks, she jogs, lifts weights and spends time in a pool. She’s a wonderful inspiration for writer’s. In addition to writing many, many books, she dedicates herself to disciplined exercise.

Next month, I’m discussing suspense — can’t wait!

I’m off to enjoy a long walk. Happy writing!

Website Shout Out: UW-Madison Continuing Studies Writing Classes

The UW-Madison Department of Continuing Education is offering fantastic writing classes this fall. From poetry classes to a weekend writing retreat, the site is worth checking out. The department also hosts a fantastic Writer’s Institute during spring that features speakers, seminars, and agent pitch sessions. Enjoy!

September 19, 2017

While we typically say goodbye to summer over the Labor Day weekend, this week marks the true end of summer with the autumn equinox on Friday, September 22 (at precisely 3:02 pm central time in the northern hemisphere.) This holiday is also known as Mabon—a mid-harvest festival. Given the temperatures we’ll expect in south central Wisconsin this week, it sure doesn’t feel like fall. The corn and soybeans still stand in the field and gardens are still abundantly producing. That’s just fine with me. I’ll hold onto summer-like weather as long as possible!

Hello Fall, Hello New Television Shows - my favorites with author Valerie BielWhat does tell me it’s fall has nothing to do with outdoorsy activities—it’s the new TV schedule and all the fall premieres that I’ve been waiting for. I was at a conference this weekend and my roommates and I had a conversation about the television shows we love and watch regularly. My list was rather long and I decided it was time to come clean. Yes, my name is Valerie and I am a TV addict. (In all fairness, I’m also a reading addict . . . so maybe I just like stories a lot no matter their medium.)

I decided to take stock and list all the shows I watch. (In my defense, not all of these shows run at the same time, or all I would do is watch TV.)

Outlander – Scottish time travel story based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon. This amazing show stays true to the books—I’m guessing because the author remains involved with the project. The third season has just started on STARZ and is just as good as expected. Here's the first season trailer to get you started if you've never watched this show.

The Walking Dead – Yes, zombies plus some really dumb people who keep making the same mistakes, but now I’m too invested to turn away. Premieres October 22.

Fear the Walking Dead – Same zombies, but different dumb people who keep making the same mistakes in the western part of the United States. I still watch because I need to know who dies next. The show is currently in its third season.

Midnight, Texas – This is a story about a town serving as a haven to a variety of supernatural creatures based on the novels by Charlaine Harris of True Blood fame. First season just concluded.

I'm a TV Addict - I love Good Behavior.Good Behavior – Michelle Dockery makes this ex-con-but-I’m-still-a-thief show rather a delight to watch. This is about as far from Downtown Abbey as you can get. The second season premieres October 15.

Madam Secretary – Tea Leoni stars as the Secretary of State in this wonderfully realistic political drama. My husband will actually watch this one with me. The new season premieres October 8.

Stranger Things (Netflix) – If you liked the movie Super 8, you should like this retro creepy story. A Netflix original, all the episodes of the second season will be available on October 27—just in time for the Halloween weekend. I know what I’ll be doing.I'm a TV Addict - I love the Americans!

The Americans – 1980s Soviet sleeper agents carry out their mission in a remarkably complex story line that keeps me checking for the next premiere date. It’s not until 2018 (big sigh).

Colony – With two seasons in, this USA Network original follows the human colonies created by an alien invasion of earth, with humans mainly becoming either collaborators or resistance. It doesn't hurt that one of my favorite actresses from the Walking Dead, Sarah Wayne Callies, is on this show now. The new season will be out in early January.

Shadowhunters – Based on the novels by Cassandra Clare this series has some mediocre acting, but I still watch just for the amusement value.  (The Shadowhunters movie starring Lily Collins was much better but didn’t earn enough for the franchise to continue on the big screen.)

I'm a TV Addict - Shameless equally appalls and entertainsThe 100 – Futuristic series when former space station survivors of a nuclear apocalypse on earth return to the surface. I’m behind by a season on this show, but now that means I can binge watch!

Shameless – I am equally appalled and entertained by the antics of the Chicago family in this drama. William H. Macy does a tremendous job as the alcoholic patriarch. Emmy Rossum stars as the eldest child and family glue and, one of my favorites, Joan Cusack has a supporting role. The whole cast is very talented. I’m waaaay behind on this show, but again this affords me the opportunity of a binge-watching weekend or two to catch up.

I'm a TV Addict - Westworld Please Come Back Soon!

Westworld – This HBO series featuring a western-themed amusement park with artificial intelligence that mixes with the guests in unexpected ways contends with the AI’s growing self-awareness. I love how this show keeps you guessing. We’ll have to wait until 2018 for the new episodes.

The Young Pope – The Jude Law HBO limited series will be back as The New Pope sometime in the future, but there are a lot of unknowns on casting and timing. Reports say that the cast will all be new, but I trust that the director who so brilliantly shaped the first season will bring us another surprising show.

The Fosters – If you need a dose of teenage angst and bad decision making, this show’s for you. Each episode takes on a lot of issues. It can be exhausting to watch the actors continue to make bad decisions. But the acting is stellar and the premise is modern and fresh—the family is comprised of two moms, one biological son, four adopted foster children, and assorted biological parents.

And on top of all of these, I still like a good dose of reality television.I'm a TV Addict - What's not to love about the Great British Baking Show?

The Great British Baking Show – British amateur bakers fight to the finish. I cannot believe the things they are expected to  make with basically no recipe. What’s not to love?

American Ninja Warrior – My kids like to remind me that they watch Ninja Warriors when it was still being broadcast from Japan.  These obstacle courses are fierce and the fitness level is intense. The season has concluded for this fall. 

I'm a TV Addict - Project Runway is one of my go-to shows.Project Runway – Tim Gunn is a Rockstar. I’ve watched all the seasons, enjoying the drama, the strange challenges, the hanging threads, and the odd winners. I mean really?? Ashley Nell Tipton designs the most lovely gowns, but how her Carmen Miranda-esque collection put her on top of season 14 is a mystery to me. Season 16 is currently airing.

Survivor – You know this one, even if you don’t watch it—crazy starving people back-stab each other for a million dollars. My favorite parts are the challenges, which become increasingly difficult for the remaining cast as their strength ebbs.  The new season premieres September 27.

The Amazing Race – In my opinion, this is the best reality show out there. If you haven’t given this one a try, you should tune in for the next season which will likely be in 2018 as it hasn’t been announced in any of the fall line ups.

Does the changing season and return of certain shows give you a thrill, too?

Do you refuse to miss a certain show? It’s time to fess up to your favorites!