The Summer of Success

Facing a career crossroads at the moment—what step to take next and all that. I’m not all angsty over it, but I have been thinking a lot about Donna Summer lately, as a result.

Donna Summer? The Queen of Disco?

First of all, thinking about Donna Summer is not new for me. I’ve had a long time interest in her career and in the singer, herself. I’ve even been known to be a defender of Summer (she’s so much more than disco), because I think her talent was far overshadowed by her persona and by the Super Storm known as Disco that came in and tried, unsuccessfully, to obliterate the Rock and Roll shoreline.

Still, I’m more interested in Summer’s genre-hopping than in her music, per se. For instance, did you know she was nominated for 17 Grammy Awards in eight different categories (genres)? Further, did you know that she won five times in four different categories—twice in Inspirational? That’s right, Inspirational. The singer of 1975s disco moan-fest, “Love To Love You, Baby,” won two Grammy Awards for Best Inspirational song (1984 and 1985).

Conventional wisdom is to not genre hop in the publishing world. Start in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense) and stay in romance (or speculative or historical or suspense).

But, I must have a little Donna Summer in me because I don’t want to be constrained in that way. Before we get all crazy, let’s remember that no one is knocking down my door for my next book—or, for that matter, my first book.

But—again—we can look to the diva for guidance. Because “conventional wisdom” isn’t called “conventional-sort-of-good-advice,” you know?

Summer made her mark in one genre—disco. It was the red-hot genre of the time and she rode that horse for all it was worth. But when the horse started to get hobbled, she made the smart move of wrapping up that era with a Greatest Hits collection, changing record labels, and then came roaring back in 1980 with a rock-pop disc without even a whiff of disco, The Wanderer. And a song from that project earned her one of her Grammy nominations.

What are the lessons for a writer?

  1. Do your homework. Summer worked in Germany and Europe in various touring companies of shows like “Hair” and “Godspell” before connecting with Giorgio Moroder for her first album, Love To Love You Baby.
  2. Establish yourself as an excellent writer of (choose one: romance/historical/suspense/other) and then, like Summer, work your butt off to make your mark. She released seven disco albums from 1975 to 1979—that’s four years—three of them in a row were blockbuster double albums.
  3. Keep your nose to the ground and your face forward. If you pay attention to the market and publishing trends, you’ll know when it’s time to change genres. If you’re a big enough success, you’ll get your opportunity. When you do, show the same quality, perseverance, and dedication to craft that got you where you are.

That’s the way to build a Hall of Fame career (Summer was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013) and do all the things you want to do.

Summer died May 17, 2012, at age 63. At her death (from cancer) she was working on two albums simultaneously—a collection of standards and a new dance music collection.

For the record, Summer’s Grammy wins were for:

  1. Best R&B Female Performance, 1979, for “Last Dance.”
  2. Best Rock Female Performance, 1980, for “Hot Stuff.”
  3. Best Inspirational Performance, 1984, for “He’s A Rebel.”
  4. Best Inspirational Performance, 1985, for “Forgive Me.”
  5. Best Dance Music Performance, 1998, for “Carry On.”

Additionally, she was nominated four times for Best Pop Vocal, twice for Best R&B Vocal, twice for best Rock Vocal, once for Album of the Year, once for Best Disco Vocal, once for Best Inspirational, and once for Best Dance Music.

Not a bad career.

Your turn: So, do you have a little Donna Summer in you?

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal ezine, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a Marketing Communications Writer for CHEFS Catalog and as a freelance editor at WritingOnTheFineLine.com. He has edited several nonfiction books, proofedited for Abingdon Press, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.

Old Newspapers — A Treasure Trove for Researching Your Historical Novel

Ever since I began writing fiction, I shied away from
writing historicals because you have to make sure you have all the details
correct, right down to the type of shoes they wore, food they ate, even whether or not
their words were part of the vernacular at the time. Otherwise, the historical
junkies will be sure to spot your mistakes.
I stuck to writing contemporaries until at an ACFW Chapter meeting,  when I told the
editor from Summerside Press that I was raised in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Intrigued that I was from the very popular Midwestern resort area, the editor wanted
to know more because they were interested in resort settings. I instantly began
plotting a contemporary in my head.

The bubble burst when she said, “Why
don’t you work up a historical proposal for me?” Of course I agreed and quickly
decided on 1933 when the iconic lakeshore building known as the Riviera was
opened.

Growing up in the town did give me somewhat of an advantage, but
I still needed to know what the town was like in 1933, not when I was a child.
I owned several coffee table books about Lake Geneva that featured
pictures from the past, but I needed a more up-close-and-personal snapshot of
the town. I decided what better place to find that than copies of the weekly
newspaper from that time.
Fortunately I live about an hour away from Lake Geneva and was
able to make frequent trips to the public library where I discovered a treasure
trove of information hidden in the microfilms of the Lake Geneva News Tribune.
Not only did I find needed information regarding the
building of the Riviera, but I also discovered the heartbeat of the town as I read
about how everyone came behind the plan to make the lakefront a tourist magnet.
Tourists meant money spent on lodging, using the beach and dancing up a storm
in the Riviera’s new ballroom. After all, this was the time of the Great
Depression.
I’d grown up taking for granted the Riviera when I passed it daily, but as I read, I
began to feel the same passion for the structure as the townspeople of 1933.
And when I later began writing the story, I couldn’t help but bring that same
passion and excitement to my heroine and the other characters.
I didn’t just read articles related to the building of the Riviera. I read about the society doings, bank robberies, high school activities, ete. etc. Often times I came across a last name I recognized as the same as one of my classmates. These weekly editions truly were a “Back to the Future” type of moment, giving me a view of my hometown from a time before I was born.
Not everyone can travel to their story setting to take
advantage of the local library’s microfilm library, but there are there are a
lot of newspapers from the past available on line. By typing “newspaper
archives” in the Google search bar, I received dozens of hits to sites—some
free and others by subscription—that just might have newspapers from your story’s
setting. Some go back to the 19th Century. 
A few that I came across include:
http://www.newspapers.com
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
http://guides.library.upenn.edu/historicalnewspapersonline
That’s the tip of the iceberg, so start exploring!

On a future post,  I’ll discuss another way the newspapers helped me make the
setting become real for my readers.

A native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago, an hour’s drive away from her hometown which she visits often to dig into its historical legacy. Her novels include Thyme for Love, and Love Will Find a Way,  contemporary romantic mysteries from OakTara Publishers, published in 2011 and 2013. Her 1933 historical romance, Love Finds You in Lake Geneva,Wisconsin, released April 1, 2013. She can often be found speaking at events around Lake Geneva or nosing in microfilms and historical records about Wisconsin and other Midwestern spots for new story ideas

She can often be found speaking at events around Lake Geneva or nosing in microfilms and historical records about Wisconsin and other Midwestern spots for new story ideas.
 

Desperately Seeking Story

Rachel Allord grew up as a pastor’s kid, vowed never to marry a
pastor, and has been contentedly married to her husband, a worship pastor, for
seventeen years. She holds a B.A. in English education and is privileged to be
both a biological and adoptive mother. Mother of My Son, her debut novel,
released in May 2013 through Pelican Book Group (Harbourlight). She resides in
Wisconsin where she avidly consumes coffee, sushi, and novels– preferably at
the same time.

Visit Rachel at www.rachelallord.com!

* * * * * * * * * *
   When I began writing my
novel Mother of My Son, I didn’t know
first hand what it was like to adopt. A few years later, after holding my
daughter for the first time in a sun-lit governmental building in China, I did.
From then on, when I fleshed out scenes from the viewpoint of my adoptive mom
character, experience grounded me. I’d been there. I knew.  And we all
know—altogether now—write what you know. Write what you understand, what you’ve
experienced, what you get
    Seek the story in what
you know.
    But here’s the truth:
If we only crafted stories centered on our experiences the world would be full
sleepy books because, let’s face it, life is a whole lot of humdrum. Sure we
all have a handful of those firecracker moments—death and betrayal and crisis
and danger, utmost joy and searing loss—but mostly our days consist of moments
not worth writing about: losing keys. Staying up all night with a throwing up
kid. Muttering at the pick-up behind you riding your tail. Yawn, yawn and pass
the coffee. Not the ingredients for a best seller. 
    And yet…
    Could these moments be
helpful, even essential, to a writer? Does that frustration you feel when you
punch a series of numbers into your phone, desperate to talk to a real live not
automated person, bolster your ability to flesh out a character desperate for a
job? When you slam your finger in a drawer—can that pain help you create a
better car crash scene?  Can the daily
blah be transformed into fodder for the craft?
Oh yes. The lackluster everyday provides lovely, rich soil in
which honesty and resonance flourish in our manuscripts. 
    The thing is, we have
to pay attention. As storytellers our job is to take what we know, what we
feel, begin there… and run like the wind. Take it a step further.  Take, “When I was seven and my cat died I was
so sad I could hardly swallow” to “What if my father had died when I was seven?” True, in terms of loss, the
experiences can’t be compared; in terms of emotion, they can. 
    Here’s what I love
about writing: We are forced to wake up to the world around us. Why? It’s all
potential fodder. All of it. That mom hollering at her kids in aisle six? She
has a story. And it might be worth telling. So drink her in.  What do you see in her eyes? I mean past the anger? What do you see in the
eyes of her children? In the eyes of those passing by? It’s like my high school
art teacher used to say: draw what you see,
not what you think you see. Write
what you see
    Seek the story in the
mundane. 
    People are wonderfully,
infuriatingly complex. And we love complex characters, as layered as tiramisu.
But doggone it, they can be so tricky to pin down with words. 
When I was knee deep in writing Mother of my Son I was hit with
a frightening realization: I didn’t understand my protagonist, Amber. Not only
that, I didn’t even like her. And if I didn’t like her, why would my readers?
She does this awful thing, right off the bat in the first chapter—she leaves
her newborn beside a dumpster. I felt compelled to tell her story, I couldn’t
shake it, but I didn’t get her. 
So I got really quiet. I stopped clicking the
keys and prayed. And then I listened. Shhhh. What does she say? Who can I
listen to in my real world that’s tread a similar path?  What news stories and radio shows can lend me
understanding? What memories and emotions can I dredge up to evoke empathy? How
can I move past the stereotype of her, the image that surfaces when I think
“girl leaves baby in dumpster” to her,
so I can write not what I think I see, but what I see
    Seek the story in what
you hope to understand. 
    Because story is all
around us, when we are watchful and hushed to see and hear.

What next, you winner?

It’s an unfortunate truth—if there are writing contests, there will be people who do not win them and most of the time those people will be you and me.

The American Christian Fiction Writer’s First Impressions contest recently announced 2012 winners—out of almost 600 entries, five people won (one in each genre category). The organization’s Genesis contest had 438 entries this year and will announce nine winners in September.

So know going into it that, when it comes to writing contests, the odds are against you winning. Does that mean you shouldn’t enter? Not at all! But what it does mean is you need to enter contests for the right reason—getting that invaluable feedback. If you win, great! In fact, stupendous! But if you don’t, what can you learn from your contest scores?

If you were one of the 595 or so who didn’t win First Impressions—or if you find yourself among the 429 who don’t win in the Genesis contest—give yourself a half hour to mourn, but remember, putting your work out there for review in any contest is brave.

Here’s the truth: Even if you don’t win the certificate, you are not a loser. You still win!

Obedience pays off

It’s true. In a real sense, you win—regardless of what writing contest you enter. You took a critical step—you submitted your writing for review. You poured out the story God laid on your heart and invited experts to judge it. You were obedient.

But you also won because you will receive your judging score sheet with those invaluable comments from publishing professionals on the details of writing, such as Characterization, Plot, Conflict, Dialogue, Setting, Mechanics, and Overall Writing Quality.

If you apply the suggestions you receive to your manuscript, you could be a finalist—or even a winner (again)—next year.

Male winnner image courtesy of imagerymajestic; Female winner image courtesy David Castillo Dominici/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.