Guest Blog ~ Mother-Daughter Reads ~ Lisa Bergren

Lisa T. Bergren is the author of over 35 books that have sold over two million copies combined. You can connect with her on Facebook (Lisa Tawn Bergren and River of Time Series), Twitter (@LisaTBergren) and online .

MOTHER – DAUGHTER READS

by Lisa Tawn Bergren

I always thought that mother-daughter reads were a good idea, but when I couldn’t get my daughters to crack a book without begging, bartering or demanding, it became a mission. For years, the only books my girls would read were those they “had” to read for school and maybe one or two others a year. And this from kids who were daughters of a writer, girls who were both in advanced English. I started to wonder just what was going on out there—were we losing the way to find and capture young readers? Or just mine?

I brought home book after book, hoping it’d be the one to draw my teens’ fervor—the one that would open their minds to the power of story and the mind-sharpening work of imagination (with no sweat involved other than reading). Even Harry Potter didn’t meet the mark. Stacks, I’m talking stacks of books came and went at my house. And then came Twilight.

I’d heard it was all the rage. I’d heard it was about vampires, but was a surprisingly moral tale. Most importantly, I heard teenage girls were rabid about it. So I rushed out and got a copy for Olivia. I think I bribed her to read the first twenty pages. And magically, blessedly, she was hooked. She read the whole thing in a week, staying up late at night.

So then I was curious. I wanted to know the formula: XX characters + XX plot = reading bliss for my teen (and later, to some extent, her younger sis). Turns out, it was romance. Romance with a serious obstacle that seems insurmountable. With a lot of action and suspense. And a drool-worthy hero and a heroine that could be any American girl. Ahh, I thought. Okay, I get her reading bent now.

We went on to read the whole series, and went to the first movie together. We talked about things we both loved—the other-worldly aspect of the Cullens (and later the werewolves), the suspense that made our hearts beat fast, the passionate—but largely chaste—romance. We also talked about what I didn’t really care for—principally falling for a man who fights the urge to kill her (“I don’t want you to think that the love of your life, your hero, is the man you fear.”) We talked about what made a man a true hero, what made a man worthy of a woman’s love. They were good, formative conversations.

Since then, we’ve gone on to read a lot of other YA novels together. I buy those I think will likely garner a good Bergren Girl Rating, and pass along those I know they’ll like—if not love. Pre-reading allows me to address anything I’m not really comfortable with—and I’ve begun to write reviews with any red flags for parents and younger readers (you can find them on my web site ). There are a lot of alarming characters and situations in today’s YA fiction—as well as wonderful characters and challenging situations that are great for readers to “try on” and think through via fiction—but it’s best if parents can discuss the Big Stuff when they’ve finished the last page. That’s the beauty of fiction…we get to “experience” difficulties and obstacles in a fictional setting, helping us to be prepared when/if we face those things in real life.

What a lovely portal into a teen’s mind and heart, right? To ignore the opportunity is to miss a significant chance for meaningful connection and development.

Happily, youth fiction has gotten pretty sophisticated. I find a lot of it engaging for my mind and heart, as well as my daughter’s. They say that a teen’s time of life has a lot in common with midlife—reexamining priorities, goals, relationships, identity. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a great genre for mothers and daughters to read together.

I’ve heard from lots of teens—and their moms—since my new YA series, The River of Time (Waterfall, Cascade, Torrent) began to release. And that makes me so happy. But truth be told, I wrote it first and foremost, for my own girls, Olivia and Emma. Which reminds me…I need to discuss a few points with them about it…

Get Thee to the Swordfight

People are funny. And not always funny ha-ha. When Lost Mission hit the shelves last September, a few people told me it was well written as far as that went, but it started off too slowly. I was prepared for any criticism except for a slow start, since the story mentions two miracles in the first four pages alone. (A church bell seems to ring by itself, and a fresco is “not painted by human hands.”) I even tossed in a couple of boys who are nearly burned alive. These folks did admit it “got better” later on, but still, apparently the miracles and near death experience were barely enough to pique their interest.

Maybe I should have burned the boys.

Of course I know a novel has to hook the reader from the very first word these days. Even an Amish romance must be thrilling from the get-go, otherwise the jaded citizenry will wander off to channel surf their countless choices in realty television shows, or “meet” a dozen perverts a minute on Chat Roulette, or even worse, read somebody else’s book. But I did think I had done my duty, hook wise, with two miracles and a couple of burning boys in four pages flat, so color me confused.

In situations like this it’s good to consult the specialists. I decided to check out the first four pages of a few stories that have done pretty well, and what I found there was instructive: Aunt Polly fails to spank her nephew. Yawn. Tom Sawyer goes back on the shelf. A man—we don’t even know his name yet!—rents a house. So much for the first four pages of The Great Gatsby. On page one of another novel we learn the Hudson River valley is uncivilized, and we learn it some more on page two, and more on pages three, and four, and by then it is clear The Last of the Mohicans wouldn’t last long in the hands of today’s impatient reader. In fact, none of these so-called “classics” would pass muster nowadays, yet people in the olden times seemed to think they were okay. So between then and now, what changed?

We did, I’m afraid. Once upon a time a troubadour could count on Lords and Ladies to sit and listen in the castle without interrupting him to say, “Get thee to the swordfight already.” Once it was possible to write a novel about a great white whale in which the whale did not appear until around page three hundred. But nowadays, unless there’s pending death, dismemberment or damnation in the first sentence it’s close the book and pass another novel.

Blame it on Robert Adler, that mad Austrian scientist who invented the television remote control. He hoped to liberate us from the senseless tyranny of having to move more than one finger to switch from NBC to CBS to ABC and back again (the only three options back in ‘56), but his impatience with the time consuming walk from couch to television set unwittingly created a slave race of channel surfing zombies.

Or maybe Adler’s Folly was just one more step in the long attention span decline that began with Gutenberg, (real name, “Goose-skin”) the inventor of movable type, a devilish creation which made it possible for the Average Joe’s reading choices to outnumber his brain cells. But really I suspect we’d have to go much further back to expose the roots of this problem, because even Gutenberg suffered from an early indication of the looming plague when he took a little longer than expected to come up with the printing press and got sued by an investor who was “losing patience.”

It turns out slow beginnings aren’t even my only shortcoming as a novelist.

In Lost Mission, I also made the mistake of setting some scenes in the 1700’s and others in the here and now. I never dreamed this would cause so much trouble, yet some people have complained it’s hard to follow the transitions between timeframes. In my defense, I did see this one coming. In the book are subtle hints, along the lines of “Pay attention, dear reader, because we’re about to leave the old timey days.” Lest you think I’m exaggerating, allow me to quote Lost Mission’s first transition. Here’s the setup: at this point in the story we are crossing the Atlantic toward the New World on a Spanish galleon with an eighteenth century friar, and then . . .

“. . . this is just the first of many journeys we shall follow as our story leads us back and forth through space and time. Indeed, the events Fray Alejandro has set in motion have their culmination far into the future. Therefore, leaving the Franciscan and his solitary ship, we cross many miles to reach a village known as Rincon de Dolores, high among the Sierra Madres of Jalisco, Mexico. And we fly further still, centuries ahead of Alejandro, to find ourselves in these, our modern times.”

You see the problem. (I know you do, because you’re one of the few who haven’t gotten bored with this column already and gone off to Google something better.) If a reader can’t (won’t?) follow along with an in-your-face transition like that, it’s hard to hope she will remember basic plot points or character’s names from one chapter to another.

Should an author pander to such people?

Just imagine where that could lead. Think of eBooks with embedded comments to remind readers that John is “the narcissist you met in chapter three” and New York is “the city where this story is taking place.” Such things are certainly feasible in this electronic age, but are they wise? Don’t brains, like muscles, atrophy unless we use them? One does hope to let the reader’s memory and imagination do some of the work, otherwise what do we have? Television, I suppose.

In a culture with 150 channels in the basic cable package, and 116 second delivery times in fast food drive through lanes, and eight minute speed dating (not to mention three minute online speed dating), I suppose impatience with old fashioned storytelling had to reach this fevered pitch. And I suppose it was too much to hope my novels would escape unscathed. After all, some of the people who read them also enjoyed that mega bestseller which is not entitled Your Best Life Later. But it does leave me wondering how a novelist should respond.

Should authors embrace the current reality by getting a character killed, kidnapped, betrayed or broken hearted in the very first phrase (never mind the first sentence) of page one? Should we try for two miracles per page rather than two pages per miracle? Should we (as some are doing) crank out four or five novels a year for fear of being otherwise forgotten in the reader’s rush to choke words down like French fries? This path has the advantage of keeping the author in print. Might it also make authors part of the problem, like drug pushers who claim they only give the people what they want?

Or should we hope there are enough sober readers left who still know the difference between reading a novel and channel surfing? Ah, the high road. Writing for that vanishing breed would be a risky choice for those of us who survive on advances and royalties, but while it might keep us up at night worrying about the bills, at least we could still look in the mirror in the morning.

There is always compromise, of course, a middle path between these two extremes, and that’s what most of us do, including me. But where does compromise lead us? Given the change in attitude from the days of Cooper, Twain and Fitzgerald, it seems the real choices are two: join our culture’s epidemic of impatience and make a living, or write for thoughtful folks and risk going out of print. Imagine you’re a novelist, struggling to survive on words. What would you do?

Author Interview ~ E. J. Rand

Four years after retiring from management consulting and public relations careers, E. J. Rand became the published, award-winning author of the Reluctant Sleuth Mysteries: SAY GOODBYE, PERFECT COVER, and HIGHER CALLING (6/09). He lives with his wife in northern New Jersey.

Welcome to Novel Journey, how long did it take you to get published?

I began writing in 2004 at age 66, and SAY GOODBYE, the first book in my Reluctant SIeuth Mystery series, was published by Deadly Ink Press in February, 2008. The second, PERFECT COVER, came out in December 2008, and the third, HIGHER CALLING, is expected to launch in June 2009.

Do you think an author is born or made?

I began writing when I realized I couldn’t talk to my parents. Go figure. They said I should go to business school, so I graduated from Wharton and had careers in management consulting and public relations before retiring so I might, finally, write. The gap between wanting to and doing it well became clear–I had to translate my desire into skill. Whether an author is born or made, I believe writing must be his/her compulsion, a core focus. Or he/she will be one of the twenty million Americans with percolating novels.

What is the first book you remember reading?

A Hardy Boys mystery–they had adventures I could only dream of. My senior citizen amateur sleuths–Gary and Becca, a married couple–treat me to their adventures, now. I’ve learned it can be painful. I hurt along with them, and my publisher threatens me when their plight grows serious.

What common qualities do you find in the personalities of published authors?

Those I’ve met run the gamut–but there may be a flicker of imagination, an interest in observing, asking the odd question, perhaps chuckling at what seem the wrong times. Aside from that, you’ll find wry humor about agents and publishers.

How do you know if you have a seemingly “stupid” book premise that is doomed to fail versus one that will fly high?

Rather than comment on the effort it takes to reach a level where we can create a 70,000-word novel that flows, builds suspense, surprises, and offers deep characters, I’ll give you my litmus test. If a scene can bring me to tears, it’s a keeper. When I read it and experience what I want my characters to feel, I trust that others will. I can’t write formula and I will not add to the legion of superheroes: Evolving a married couple, having them see each other differently at the end of each novel because of what’s happened–well, it makes me fly high. My first novel won two awards, so I’ll keep at what turns me on.

What is the theme of your books?

In SAY GOODBYE, it’s second chances. When we meet them, Gary and Becca are each wearing wedding rings–him to preserve memories, her as a defense against men. Evolutions: they fall for each other, and Gary, a logical, buttoned up man, is blown open emotionally. Falling for Becca allows him to say goodbye to his late wife. When the killers come for him but take her, he may have to say goodbye again–and he can’t.
This book has been honored with two awards.In PERFECT COVER, the title says it: How can Gary find the killer when two murderous plots are afoot? He and Becca are married, she wants in on the sleuthing, but he–looking into attacks on women in the hospital where she serves as a nurse–resists. What’s a strong woman to do? She becomes a police decoy to catch a killer. We know, though he doesn’t, that there are two killers–and Becca is in the sights.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

I wrote SAY GOODBYE, submitted it and got it right back, and set it aside. I wrote PERFECT COVER and set it aside–learning all the while from writing groups, conferences, classes, and practice. Then HIGHER CALLING poured out in six months, and I felt confident. After that, I reworked SAY GOODBYE as I wanted the series to start where Gary and Becca meet. Then I revised the second in series, PERFECT COVER. So you might say my third-and-a-half novel got published first.
Since then I’ve completed a fourth, DARK SEA, and I’m well into a fifth. It gets deeper, more emotional, so I won’t be bored. But still, if a respected colleague offers comment, I consider how I might revise/clarify to improve it while retaining my vision.

Are takeaway messages (in your book) important to you?

Love counts most, and it’s how you deal with the ride that makes the difference.

When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?

If I can let it sit, go on to something else, and when I return to it, read it aloud, slip into it and find that it flows without changes, I’m there. What happens when I bury myself in an unfinished scene and read it aloud is that my spoken words will be different from what’s on the screen (or, page). Then I’m not done.

Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?

For HIGHER CALLING, I researched, on the Internet, plastic explosives and bomb making–and expected a knock on the door. For DARK SEA, the final question I got to ask a cruise ship officer was, “So, the food waste disposal intake is large enough for body parts….” For PERFECT COVER, a regional hospital security director, his left eye suddenly twitching, told me that my premise was one of his nightmares.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

I will not submit anything to my publisher that I don’t believe in, and I won’t submit until it is professionally edited. I treat my editor’s marks as grist for learning. Generally, I want to be “in” a scene four or five times, until I feel the surround, hear the talk, see the movement, get rocked by the action. Improvement is my mantra, this writing-author process is an adventure, and as long as I’m doing what I want and having fun with it, no doubts.

How do you craft a plot?

I read scores of mystery novels before starting to write, because I wanted to find what I liked best. For me, it’s deep characters and what you might term a complex plot: more than one thing happening, often simultaneously, so readers (and Gary and Becca) are taken on a journey. I develop plot threads that can play out and come together at the end. At first, I plotted only as far ahead as the headlights could see.
For the novel I’m presently writing, I laid out each plotline and integrated them. I began SAY GOODBYE as a murder mystery, and found a love story also pouring out. It seems I cannot write a mystery novel without a love story–it’s in the plot’s DNA, and, I guess, in mine.

How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?

What happens to me: Within a few pages of reading the work of a talented author, I find a bit of craft I might make my own, not words to steal but perhaps a way of handling a transition, or creating a gap in dialog. My fingers twitch and I’m at the keyboard. Some books make me take notes. Wonderful craft abounds out there. What an author values, he/she retains.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

After the first years of grinding at it, being yelled at in group and rejected by agents, my family tenderly suggested they’d read it if I self-published. That’s a growing industry–but my goal was to make it for “real.” This is what I do. It’s compulsive.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

Minutes after my delighted Snoopy dance at being offered publication, reality set in. Authors today must market. So I got professionally trained as a speaker and found a niche for my series. I speak before senior groups, library groups, women’s groups, book groups, at schools, hospitals, and more–and I enjoy connecting with audiences. I “set” the events by myself, and I’ve been able to get write-ups about me in print media, a benefit of the public relations career.

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Author picture by Ray Turkin