Why I wrote the YA novel Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town

cover photo, No photo description available.                                                        My childhood home in Western Maryland.

As I gear up to accept my North Carolina Author Project Award in Nashville, Tennessee, I think about the deeper reasons why I wrote my YA, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town. Sometimes when we authors pen a tale, we don’t necessarily tap into specific memories, at least not consciously. So taking a few moments to analyze the crux of Upside Down, not just for me, but for my readers.

I grew up in Western Maryland, in a family of four active little girls who probably should have been boys. Even though I was born at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, my parents decided that living out in the countryside would be more advantageous to their daughters’ lives. So, at the age of six, I was packed up along with our household belongings and moved into a fourteen-room farm house situated on a low hill in the middle of a newer neighborhood. The neighborhood was (and still is) known as Carroll County Trails, each of the streets named after a type of horse. My street was Suffolk Road. This is what you do out in the countryside, you name streets after horses, or trees, or flowers…

The house was built in the late 1860s, and is flanked across the front by a wide curved porch. The roof is tin. The outside walls are slatted wood. Because the early 1860s still knew slavery, the home, when I lived in it, had a summer kitchen on the side, and a smokehouse in the back. The summer kitchen (which, sadly, was removed by the current owners a few years back), was originally used by a slave or servant, or even the lady of the house, to cook meals during the summers because it was too hot to cook in the actual house. Inside the dark 10 x 10 space was a large stone fireplace, probably dormant for over a century. It had a narrow staircase leading up to a loft, perhaps where a caretaker slept, but was better suited to a growing country girl like myself as a place to play truth or dare, or make out with boys who looked like David Cassidy. The smokehouse, which squatted at the corner of the property, was about 4 x 4, with tall walls and no floor. This building would have been used for curing meat in order to preserve it for meals, especially in the winter when it was difficult to get to a butcher. Up until the day I left home in 1981, that smokehouse, which we turned into a bathhouse to go with our above ground pool, never stopped smelling like bacon. To this day, if I smell bacon in a restaurant, I am reminded of our old smokehouse.

As a young girl, I had a grand imagination, though it didn’t lend itself to faeries and dragons and such. And even though my home was incredibly haunted (a tale for another blog post), I tended to stick to an average girlish script during playtime, specifically playing “house.” In the second grade I had a crush on a little neighbor boy who I deemed, without his consent, my playmate. I’m sure he would have rather been playing baseball or shooting cans with a slingshot, but I was little Miss Bossypants as a child, and convinced him he should play what I wanted, which was farmer and wife. I made him pretend to be the man who grew crops and smoked meat, and I would be the wife who hand washed clothes and took care of all the cooking. My memory of these summer days are a blur, but the feelings hidden beneath the memories are strong and laced with happiness and comfort. You see, I found that playing a farmer’s wife came easy to me, as though I’d lived before as a woman who washed and cooked and kept the fire in the hearth going. I enjoyed roughing it, and getting my hands dirty. I still do. I never complain about scrubbing toilets or doing laundry, as if it is a part of my DNA. So, as a kid out in the countryside, it seemed like the perfect role, this farmer’s wife.

My hometown is filled with expansive farms, rolling hills, horse stables, ponds, creeks, tire swings, gardens, and cows dotting the rolling hills everywhere you look. Growing up, everyone I knew played a part in this country life, from an old friend of my mother’s who taught me how to can, to my private violin teacher who taught me how to collect eggs and shear sheep, to the 4-H Club which awarded me ribbons for keeping a cat journal. The busy city life of Baltimore was only thirty minutes away, but we felt so far removed from that world. Many of my friends were from farming families. The ones who weren’t farmers chose to live alongside the corn and cows because there is a sense of freedom and simple living so far away from the city.

One place in my hometown that stands out for me is the Carroll County Farm Museum. This gorgeous homestead has remained in tact since 1852 and is a living museum that replicates what it was like to live in the 1880s. Originally built on over 300 fertile acres, there is a main house, a springhouse, and other outbuildings. They have live animals, tours, classes, and a gift shop. I remember being dazzled by its beauty year round: Fourth of July fireworks; autumn hay rides; dazzling Christmas decorations; and many school field trips. I even dragged my husband there a few years ago to prove to myself it was as wonderful as I remembered, and it was.

I tell you about my home and the living museum because I have come to the conclusion that these are two of the reasons I wrote Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town. Sure, I read the Little House books as a child, and watched every episode of the television version, including reruns. Laura Ingalls Wilder has always been a part of me, and I even picked up her nickname, Halfpint, when I was little, because I resembled Melissa Gilbert who played Laura on the show. But honestly, I do not think that she (Laura) is the real reason I wrote the book.

Old homesteads, old farms, old outbuildings give me the ookies. They make my stomach flip in a good way. So much so, that I am now living in a tiny Southern town in my second Victorian home. I have been to the Bennett House in Durham, and hid my tears when I saw that the inside of the home was nearly identical to the fictional Western North Carolina home I’d created for my novel. Ironically, as a teen, I couldn’t wait to get out of my tiny Western Maryland out-in-the-sticks town and find a bigger city. I actually moved to Southern California at nineteen and lived in beachy apartments for twenty years. But one day, it hit me that I missed that country life, at least a little bit. Many of us, as we get older, end up living as we did as children, since that is where we find comfort. A part of me yearned for the countryside, to know that cows and horses and farms weren’t too far away. So I moved to a place that brought those feelings back to me.

For Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town, watching sixteen-year-old Brooke Decker, the main character, learn to live without the accoutrements (and perhaps confines) of the modern era, I was able to once again experience those summer days of pretend farming, of washing socks in a bucket and hanging them on the line to dry, of recognizing even as a child, that a day working hard with your hands is the best day ever. And that living a life, even for a few months, like Laura Ingalls, can teach us what it means to understand nature, to envelope oneself in quiet, to feel the tired in our bones from a productive day. I didn’t grow up like Laura Ingalls, but I think I always wanted to. And as much as I once prayed to leave the cow town I grew up in, I feel damn lucky I had the opportunity to be a country girl for a while. That country girl will always be a part of who I am, and I thank the universe she found a way to become a part of Brooke Decker, too.

My website: www.leslietallmanning.com

Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Townhttps://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AS5ZQZU

Carroll County Farm Museum: http://carrollcountyfarmmuseum.org/exhibits/

 

With Thanks to the Universe

Lotsa Luck Wheel

It has been a good year. Slow and steady. No personal drama. No illnesses. No fires to extinguish, literal or otherwise. No deaths in my family. Marriage is 25 years strong. Weather is doable. Friendships are in abundance. Private time is mine for the taking, but so is social time. I love my tutoring job. The kids I get to work with, who teach me more than I teach them. I love my writing life…90% of  the time. And while 10% can seem insurmountable in the moment, it is, after all, only 10%. 

The mountain is high, indeed, but I continue to crawl up its side, over rocks and crumbly earth and seemingly impassable streams. The turtle and the hare? I am definitely the turtle. Thank god for the hard shell. Without it, I would never have written 14 novels and self-published five, nor would I be purchasing a keyboard this January to begin writing the musical version of my latest book.

In 2019, I traveled to California to see family, visited Switzerland with my husband, and cried with joy as my senior students received college acceptance letters. I won a third book award, gave readings at three libraries, held four book signings, sold my novels at holiday craft fairs, spoke to two book clubs, attended an author luncheon, promoted a YA, and released my 5th novel. 

I was speaking with my husband the other day, and I mentioned how lucky I feel to be a female writer in the USA, a place where women can do everything that men can do, where we are not second class, where we can choose our marital partners, express our sexuality, speak up in public forums, write our books, share our words with the world. How lucky I am that I am in my 50s but feel as though I am in my 30s; that I have decades of wisdom to accompany my writing endeavors; that I no longer believe in the power of whining or self-pity; that I have not become so jaded that I quit my passion in favor of the status quo; that I have a supportive community around me; that I can quit this gig whenever I want, or keep creating until my brain fizzles.

What a great life this is. This life that I chose.

I do hope this holiday season, you remember all of the great things which allow you to be who you are, what you are. That by reflecting on the many ways in which you, too, are lucky, or by celebrating even the tiniest of baby steps, your new year is a perpetual motion of great things large and small. Take note of these things, these moments. It may turn out that you are luckier, and even happier, than you thought.

Here’s to you and your creative endeavors in 2020.

 

 

 

Knock on Wood: Sneak Peek!

Here is the first chapter of my new book, Knock on Wood, a story of music, love, and redemption.

Release November 15, 2019. Available for Preorder on Kindle HERE.

 

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe;

it gives back life to those who no longer exist.”

~ Guy Maupassant

 

 “Let him step to the music which he hears,

however measured or far away.”

~ Henry David Thoreau

 

 

 PART I 

 Summer, 1978

 

Chapter 1

Stephanie

“Come on, Stephanie! I’ll prove to you who can hold their breath longer!”

Billy’s lanky arms and legs pumped extra hard as he raced to the end of the narrow dock and stood on the edge, barely keeping his balance. His shirtless torso was already picking up the sun. I wondered when in the world his mama was going to buy him a new pair of swim shorts. His cutoffs were the same ones from the summer before. As he stood on his toes with his back to the pond, his mop of dirty blond hair bounced away from his head then righted itself again. By the time the carnival came to town, that yellow hair would shine as bright as my grandma’s waxed kitchen floor.

He wiggled his skinny body like a jelly fish. “I got me a groove thing,” he sang and shouted at the same time. “Shake shake shake it!”

I laughed from my belly as I sat with my legs stretched out on the horse blankets near the tall pines and firs, and gazed at my pink-polished toes. Donald sat on my right and Lance on my left. The first day of summer surrounded us. The air lay thick and still with humidity, the cicadas buzzing happily, the portable radio playing Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. I licked my lips and breathed in freedom and sunshine and the familiar smell of the pond only a few yards away.

“You go in, Billy,” I shouted sweetly. “I don’t have the gopher guts to try that cold water. Not yet, anyways.”

Donald, Billy’s older brother, whispered something in my ear, but I shooed him away like an annoying gnat. I was busy watching Billy, who was giving me the most adorable grin.

“Y’all are a bunch of chick-chick-chickens!” He crazily flapped his arms, jumped out into space, and disappeared over the edge of the dock. Water droplets leaped into the air, mingled with streams of sunshine, then fell back into the pond like rain.

Donald stood up and pulled off his T-shirt. “A chicken can’t hold his breath as long as I can!” His bare feet kicked up clumps of damp earth as he ran, covering the tracks Billy had made moments before. Donald ran down the dock and stopped at the edge, turned his head to give me one of his stupid I-know-you-want-me-baby looks, and dove in.

The moment Donald vanished, my head became clear again.

It was my plan to marry Billy Baker. I had loved him since our eyes first met in the cafeteria vaccination line the August before first grade. He never cried like the other boys when the school nurse jabbed him in the arm. Billy was the bravest boy I’d ever known.

By the time the summer between middle and high school rolled around, my love for Billy became stronger than those silly crushes my girlfriends couldn’t shut up about. My heart was filled with all the grand things a grown woman feels when she’s in love. A constant aching for him to kiss me like he did that first time at the drive-in. Raw, jealous pain when he tossed a casual look toward Debbie in square-dance class, or Tina in chorus. That unexplainable emptiness when Billy was absent from school, a stomach virus or a winter cold keeping him home. Those nonstop flip-flops that sent my stomach up to high heaven every time I heard him imitate one of the Bee Gees, or caught him giving me those baby blue goo-goo eyes. I kept on having to throw away my book covers, driving my mama absolutely insane, because I couldn’t help scribbling all over the insides: Stephanie Taylor Loves Billy Baker; Stephanie Caroline Baker; Stephanie Taylor Baker; Mr. and Mrs. William Baker; S.T. + W.B. TOGETHER FOREVER!

I lay back on the blanket, a stream of sunlight peeking through the clouds and massaging my face, and pictured what my wedding dress would look like. The band on the radio program kept singing about shaking their booty, and I smiled as Billy’s best friend Lance sang along, his voice cracking in all the best places until the song ended, and the deejay blared Coca-cola commercials and ads for the new movie Grease, which Billy and I planned on seeing opening day.

I turned down the radio. A moment of silence followed.

A very long moment.

Lance stood up and looked at his watch, trying to read it without the sun’s glare. “They’ve been down there for over a minute.” His eyes darted from his wrist to the water. His Adam’s apple slid up and down.

Another twenty seconds drifted by.

“Shouldn’t they be up by now?” I asked, standing next to my friend. Together we watched for any kind of movement, any rippling in the water. Anything.

Lance took off his watch and threw it onto the blanket. He started to untie his sneakers just as Donald’s head appeared at the end of the dock.

“Man, that was one long hold,” he said between coughs. “I thought my lungs would explode.” He heaved himself onto the pier and strutted toward the blankets. “How’d I do? Break last year’s record?” He grabbed his A-Team towel from where it lay on the grass. “Did I kick his ass?” He shook his head like a wet mongrel and dried off his legs and feet.

“Where is he?” Lance said.

“Huh?”

“Where’s Billy?”

“Guess he’s still holding his breath.”

For a moment I thought Lance would punch him; his fists kept clenching and unclenching. Then, as if someone had called his name, he ran across the grass and down the dock.

Donald hung his towel over a shoulder. “You hungry, Steph? Ma can make us tuna fish on saltines.”

Lance’s voice drifted to me. “Holy Jesus.”

“What?” I asked, barely loud enough for my own ears to hear. My head still didn’t want to comprehend what my intuition had been itching to tell me. Panic rose in my throat.

Lance shouted, “Steph, get Mr. Baker. Tell him to call an ambulance. And to bring a knife!”

Through the woods I ran in my flip-flops, trying not to step in any mud dauber nests or trip on any roots. I screamed, “Mr. Baker, Mr. Baker!” at the top of my lungs. “It’s Billy! Call an ambulance! Bring a knife! Hurry!”

Once I heard him coming, I ran back up the path, across the grass, and down the dock. My flip-flops flew off my feet as I dove in. The icy water should have shocked my body, but I barely felt it. My heart raced, pumping loud and hard in my throat until it nearly choked me. Underwater, the rickety dock groaned like it was in pain.

I opened my eyes. Billy floated next to a piling from a dock that no longer existed. We were warned to watch out for those old pilings, but no one had ever said anything about looking out for nets. I tried to help Lance free Billy’s ankle, but it was no use. It was as if that net was a part of his foot. I needed more air, but still I tugged. Billy’s arms floated next to him. His face was blue and had taken on a peaceful stare, like a mentally ill man I had seen once in a movie. Vacant and calm.

I could no longer hold on. As I rose to the top, I looked back to see Lance placing his lips against Billy’s, desperately giving him his own air, and I wished to God it had been me giving him those breaths.

The moment my head broke through the water’s surface, the choking in my throat began, my oxygen spent, my lungs aching for air. As I coughed up water and closed my eyes to stop from vomiting, preparing to take another journey back to my Billy, Mr. Baker came storming down the planks, carrying a deer-gutting knife in his hand. The afternoon sun bounced off the blade. Mrs. B was right behind. I felt my heart searching for its regular rhythm. Everything would be all right now.

But then I caught the look on Mr. Baker’s face and quickly turned away. It was the look of a man out of control. And dads aren’t supposed to be out of control. Dads are supposed to know how to save the day.

Mr. Baker kicked off his work boots and jumped into the water. He, too, disappeared below the surface. Mrs. Baker reached down to pull me up, my knees and shins grazing the edge of the dock good and hard, tiny splinters digging in. Little tracks of blood dotted my shins, but I never felt a thing. My body was numb, like someone had pulled me from a freezer and stuck me on top of a Popsicle stick. I shook uncontrollably. Mrs. B wrapped a towel around my shoulders. As she dried me off, I did a slow-motion pivot.

Donald sat behind us on the horse blankets. His silver braces flashed in the summer sun, his wide smile like a cartoon hyena. I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all: Billy trapped underwater; Lance and Mr. B like alligators, taking turns coming up for air then slipping under again; Mrs. Baker clutching the hem of her apron and shaking it like a dirty sheet as she paced along the dock, screaming that the ambulance was on its way, the police and fire department too.

As she paced, she repeated over and over again under her breath, like a chant, until her words echoed in my ears, even hours after she’d stopped saying them, “Everythin’ will be fine. My baby will be fine. My favorite boy will be just fine…”

 

Knock On Wood

Here is my new adult novel in all its glory, available for preorder in November, 2019. Twenty years in the making. A musical version to follow (hopefully not in another 20 years!)

Ya’ll, this story is buried so deep in my heart that it has been a guiding light for two decades.

Thank you for taking time to read the summary:

1978:

Fourteen-year-old Billy Baker is the first into the pond that early summer day. Ten minutes later, his lifeless body is pulled from the chilly water, his lips like two slivers of blue ice. Billy Baker dies…but only for a little while. Thirty-nine days later, he emerges from a coma.

But he is not alone.

1994:

Billy (AKA William) is turning thirty. He forgets some letters in the alphabet. He can’t set a table properly. He still believes it’s the disco era. And he can’t remember that day at the pond.

But the young boy William used to be has never left his side.

A brain-damaged hero. An unrequited love. A lottery windfall. A jealous brother. A memory hidden just below the surface…

Sharp contrasts of sunshiny music and life’s dark periphery are delicately mingled in this extraordinary tale, putting a new twist on the age-old question: Is it possible to find the way home again when one’s memory is nothing more than a blank slate?

For fans of Forrest Gump and The Five People You Meet in Heaven.

Writing Advice 101

Before you read through the list of 22 tidbits below, remember: This is YOUR writing career. YOUR path. These are merely guidelines. You may have your own set of rules that differ from this one, and that is fine. If you’d like to add to the list, please feel free to do so in the comments! I will post updates from time to time.

Happy Writing, y’all!

1. Never let anyone tell you that you should not write. EVERYONE gets better and stronger at their craft with consistent practice.
2. Don’t follow someone else’s path regarding publication; everyone has a different and tailor-made journey. Yours is as unique as anyone’s.
3. Listen to advice from professional editors regarding your work, especially where grammar is concerned.
4. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst when it comes to getting published.
5. Strike a balance between writing, family, self, and friends.
6. Use a standing desk. Sitting for too long is a killer.
7. Stretch a lot during your writing day. Try setting an alarm to get you moving at least once an hour. This includes neck and wrists.
8. If you can, limit your writing time to 2-3 hours a day, and write at the same time each writing day. Consistency is key to optimal writing.
9. When looking for an agent, use the Literary Marketplace, which is still considered the bible in the industry.
10. For fiction, DO NOT contact ANY agent until your manuscript (ms) is complete AND has been edited by a critique group or professional editor.
11. Know your genre. Even if you don’t fall into a specific category, create a combo.
12. The writer who makes it with their first novel is an anomaly. Most “overnight” successes actually take years, even decades, and three or four or ten books. If you are not in this for the long haul, find another trade.
13. Don’t quit your day job just because you’ve found an agent. An agent is not insurance that you will publish. (Trust me on this one!!)
14. Read your work out loud to a friend, family member, or the dog. Hearing your words can help you find mistakes and weaknesses in your writing.
15. You are never above taking writing workshops. Even the best singers still take lessons.
16. Find a support group with other writers who truly want you to be successful. Even some online groups can be beneficial.
17. Do not expect your friends or family to read and review your work. Some will openly refuse, while others will ignore your requests. It is not their responsibility to stroke your writer’s ego.
18. Do not send your work to a literary agent who has not requested it. This includes not sending to a writer friend’s agent and pretending they recommended you. Stay transparent. Honesty is everything in this small but mighty industry.
19. If you do acquire an agent, help him or her out by sharing your own list of possible well-matched editors.
20. Worried you may get writer’s block while working on a novel? Try stopping your session mid-sentence instead of at the chapter’s end. This will immediately put you back on track for the next session, and you can start right where you left off.
21. If you procrastinate, your book will not get finished. I have a motto that I tell myself every writing day: “This book ain’t gonna write itself.” And then I get going. Have a motto of your own and stick to it.

To be continued…

The Devastating 1-Star Review

Understand before you read on, that I am NOT a whiner. I LOVE life. I am happy by nature, and spend a lot of time laughing and looking for banana peels to slip on. I do not make a habit of complaining over the airwaves, or, as it were, over social media. I bitch to my husband, and that’s about as far as I go to share angst regarding my career choices. But I think it’s high time that a writer came forward to share her dismay about how 1-star reviews can immediately catapult a writer into the depths of despair.

I am not a newbie at this game. I began writing with serious gusto over 20 years ago. This means that I have been a front-row witness to the seemingly infinite changes within the publishing industry. These changes include everything from how and what to mail to editors and agents, whether or not to self-publish or go traditional, and understanding phrases such as “own voice” and “He/Him”. I have learned to roll with it; to remember that patience is as much a virtue in this fluid industry as the actual process of writing; to remain open-minded; and to stay as light-hearted as possible, even when things appear bleak. Being a 20-plus-year veteran does not make me a perfect writer, but it does make me knowledgeable in the fields of writing and reviewing.

That said, I love reviewing other books. I don’t have a lot of extra time to add this to my intensely busy schedule, but I do try to review when I can. Sometimes I review on Amazon, sometimes Goodreads, and sometimes in private for a writer. I have left 3-star reviews, but for the most part, I leave 4- and 5-stars.

I have fourteen books written, with four books published (a 5th coming out in fall 2019). Some YA. Some Adult. No series. All have unique plotlines, though if you read a few, you will find common themes.

Each of my published books has a Goodreads rating between 4.14 and 4.38. Not too shabby for a self-published author. I do all of my own early editing, rereading each book between 20 and 40 times, and then passing it along to my team of incredibly talented and insightful beta readers. Then it goes off to a formatter, then back to me in Kindle form, where I read it again, then back to the formatter, then back to me in PDF, then it is ready for the world. I take almost as much time with my cover design as I do with editing. To say the least, each book is strategically researched, written, rewritten, edited again and again, and packaged. Then it is thrown into the Amazon Monster’s belly for supper. After the book goes live, the marketing begins and never stops.

Finally, readers on Netgalley, or Goodreads, or patrons at library events decide to read the book. It is a scary time for any writer, waiting for the reviews. Some writers never look at their ratings or reviews, but if you are in charge of your own marketing like I am, they are sort of hard to miss.

As I mentioned, the ratings average on my books are relatively high, and for that I am thankful. By the time I had my third book out, I still had no 1-stars. As a matter of fact, I had so many 4- and 5-star ratings that my confidence grew along with my list of books written.

But I was about to lose my lone-star virginity.

It came from a woman I’d spoken to at a friend’s book club. This means that the reviewer is a friend of a friend. What’s crazy is that she didn’t give me a low rating on the book we discussed, but another book that had come out a few years earlier and had won the Sarton Women’s Literary Award. We hadn’t discussed this particular book at the book club, so I was confused out the gate.

Okay. So, this is how it went down:

It was two days after the book club meeting. I was standing my kitchen at bedtime, like, around 11:30. I decided to check my stats on my laptop. I happened to glance at my Goodreads page and noticed my ratings had dropped. Then I spotted the 1-star. I stared at it like my dashboard suddenly had a cancerous mole sitting in the middle of it. At first, I believed it was a mistake, that I was reading it wrong. I was tired. Needed better glasses. So I refreshed the page. Heat rose up my neck and into my face. I could feel the tears sting. Nausea crawled into my stomach. Someone had left a 1-star, but not a review. On Amazon, you are not allowed to leave only a rating; you must accompany it with a review, however poorly written. But on Goodreads, that isn’t the case—though maybe it should be.

(Aside: If you hate a book, then don’t finish it. And if you don’t finish it, then how can you review it? And if you finish it anyway, and still hate it afterward, and leave a 1-star, then have the common courtesy to leave a review!)

My husband called me up for bed. I didn’t let him see my tears. He fell asleep right away, and I cried in the dark while he snored next to me. I slept two hours that night. The next morning, I checked again, thinking maybe this person had left a review in the wee hours. Nada. Just that dang 1-star, sitting there among all the other more beautiful 4 and 5-stars.

Over breakfast, I told my husband what had happened. I started crying again. After he consoled me and threatened to “write that bitch a letter,” I calmed him down, reminded him that a writer “never engages with a negative reviewer,” and said that I just needed a little time to get control of my feelings.

Here’s how I was feeling: That all the 4s and 5s didn’t matter, the book award didn’t matter, the positive letters I’d received from teen girls didn’t matter, the librarians who’d asked for the book didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that 1-star review. For the entire day I walked around like my cat had just died. I threatened my inner self that I would call it quits. Time to throw out the laptop, get back to reality. I had reached the end of the road as a writer. I would go back into teaching, back into the world of grammar and 1-paragraph essays and reading Fahrenheit 451 with kids who didn’t give a crap. I think I was as down as I’d ever been in my entire life.

But that was (and is) not who I am. I am not wired to sit around stewing in my own grief. After allowing myself one day to wallow, I did the following:

I emailed the book club hostess and told her what had happened. (She was super supportive.)

I composed a nasty letter to the reviewer, never planning to send it.

I then forgave the reviewer, thinking maybe she’d had a really bad day, or a bad life.

I emailed two writers who had yet to post reviews and asked them to do so. (They did.)

I called my agent so he could give me a pep talk. (He’s better and cheaper than a therapist).

I looked up highly regarded authors (past and present) who had also received 1-stars.

I re-read ALL of the positive reviews EVERY ONE of my books had received.

I promised myself I would never EVER read reviews right before bed.

I reminded myself that Karma is a bitch who has a memory like an elephant.

I continued writing my WIP (work in progress).

And…

After a few days, the pain of it all disappeared. Just drifted away, into the magic cornfield where all negativity and meanness goes after a time.

To offer a cliché: We all bleed. But most artists are an extra sensitive lot who not only rely on the reviews of others but thrive on them. Leaving a 1-star rating (especially without a review) serves no purpose other than to upset the writer. Leaving a 1-star rating is like saying, “Your words suck, your story sucks, you suck.” Leaving a 1-star is like a teacher handing a hard-working student an “F” for a story because said teacher didn’t like the plot or agree with the student’s opinion.

My writing is an extension of me. While I am not the characters in my books, they are a part of me. All of those words strung together came from me. From my heart. My soul. A place deeper than the soul, perhaps. I gave birth to them. I don’t write books to hurt others, or to show off. I write because…well, because the universe asked me to. I write to make readers happy, not so angry they need to stab me in the heart with a toxic 1-star rating.

While reviewers have the right to leave any ratings or reviews they like, I hope that writers take them with a grain of salt and not allow them to kill their creative spirit. I hope that readers keep in mind how hard (most) writers work and that they are on this earth doing their life’s work. And I hope that the general public understands that 1-star reviews are one of the meanest done to a writer, musician, blogger, vlogger, fine artist, or actor. And finally, I hope that people can somehow regain the couth that my generation was raised with when sharing their opinions of another’s artistic creations. Honesty is valuable only when surrounded by words that encourage, not deflate.

Still gaga for the novel, GAGA–and the photo that started it all.

I was recently invited to a book club to discuss my novel, GAGA, even though it was published in 2015. Because this particular book club offered fresh insights regarding my main character’s world, I decided I would write a blog on how the book came to fruition and why it keeps such a tender place in women’s (and men’s) hearts.

Side note: Yes, there is a famous singer named Lady Gaga; no, this book has absolutely nothing to do with her. As a matter of fact, the novel was first begun, including procuring the title, while Lady Gaga was barely out of high school. In case you wondered.

GAGA Summary: When her husband releases her from a stagnant marriage, a freelance writer gets a chance to score the biggest interview of the decade. All she has to do is leave her daughter behind, change her name, dress like a crazed groupie, and for one month follow a comeback rock band as they tour the US.

Genre: Women’s fiction, commercial/literary

Core themes: Rock and roll, high school crushes, throwing fears to the wind, and starting over

Time Period: Contemporary

Comparable Book Titles: In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner; Tempting Fate by Jane Green; One Day in December by Josie Silver

Comparable Film Titles (for those who compare books to movies, which is fine with me): Music and Lyrics; Almost Famous; Enough Said

The back story:

Waaaaay back in early 1985, (I won’t tap my foot while you do the math), I dated a guy who bought and sold venue tickets for a living. Perhaps scalping is a better word, but I digress since this story is not about him. He and I used to take limos to music concerts all over Southern California, where I lived at the time. I was in my early twenties. One of these concerts was Hall and Oates, an incredibly popular guitar duo. (If you have never heard of them, feel free to look them up.) The San Diego Sports Arena was mostly packed during the opening band, since the lead singer was Corey Hart, who’d made a hit record out of the word “sunglasses” and was a hot ticket at the time. He even wore his Ray-bans while he entertained the crowd. As during most concerts, my date and I sat in the front row. I even brought my older sister to this particular concert, as witness to what I am about to share with you.

Corey Hart and his band played a while, and they were quite good. Near the closing of their act, Corey shouted into the mic, “Who wants to come up and sing ‘Sunglasses’ with me?”

Of course the audience went wild. What teenager, twenty-something chick, or cougar wouldn’t want to stand next to this popular hot singer of the day? And to boot, he really did (and still does) have a lovely voice, not to mention he plays a few instruments.

As I mentioned, I was sitting in the front row. Or, I suppose by now we were standing, as concert-goers often do at a concert. In any case, Corey was looking out over the audience, scanning the babes in their tight tops, short skirts, big Aqua-netted hair. And there stood I, dressed in a preppy yellow (ugh, yellow!) sweater I’d owned since junior year of high school, a pair of jeans (probably Levis), and a pair of docksides (popular footwear at the time, even for non-boaters). The height of my hair, on a scale of 1 to 10, was about a 6 that evening. That was me. Middle of the road. Not gorgeous, but young and presentable; not sexy, but bubbly and self-assured. You see, my background is in musical theatre (oh, poor Corey, if he only knew…) and I LOVED being on stage. The bigger the audience, the better. I am still the same way today: a stutterer in front of a small group, a loud theatrical persona in front of thousands. But that didn’t matter at first, because Corey wasn’t looking at me. He didn’t even offer a quick glance my way, down there at his feet, front row, center.

But his bass player did.

The bass player made eye contact, pointed to me, leaned over the end of the stage, and extended his hand. My date pushed me toward him, and I literally crawled up the side and onto the stage with the bass player’s help. (Thank God I wasn’t wearing a mini skirt and heels!) Then Corey saw the plane Jane his bass player had pulled from the ocean of pearls. He looked both surprised and sad. I think he was hoping to bring up a sex kitten from a Cosmo cover, not some preppy girl who looked like she worked in the sweater department at JC Penney.

But I didn’t care. I was onstage!!

The bass player pushed me over to Corey, then Corey shouted something into the microphone, keeping it cool, playing the game. He turned to me, slid off his sunglasses, and positioned them on my narrow face.

“Let’s sing my song together,” he said, or something to that effect. And I should have nodded, or screamed like I’d just won the double whammy on the Price is Right, or fainted. But I did none of those things. Instead, I said, nearly begging, “Oh, please let me do harmony, please…” He looked at me like I was a total goob; an idiot. I’m sure he was wondering why I wasn’t trembling with glee, or giving him shy playful looks. Like maybe if I had done one of those things, I would have been asked to come backstage, share a glass of wine, spend time on the bus… Instead, I explained that I was an alto, that I HAD to harmonize. That I loved singing and he and I would sound great together. And that’s what I did. The song played, Corey sang the melody, I sang the harmony, and the song ended. I thought we sounded pretty good. Heck, maybe he’d ask me to join his entourage, be a female backup singer, or a roadie.

Instead, I was cast aside like the non-fan I appeared to be.

The rest of the story only has to do with me being pushed backstage by the same bass player who’d invited me up, and a security guard who did not believe me when I said I’d just been onstage singing with Corey. Eventually, I was led back to my seat. By then, Corey and his musicians were finished, and Hall and Oates were preparing to play. Regrettably, the sunglasses gifted to me were stolen a few weeks later.

So then. Great story, right? But how does this actually relate to my book, GAGA?

Well, I’ll tell you.

The guy who got me into the concert knew a photographer who had taken a photo of Corey and me together onstage. (In the old days, the only ones allowed into venues with cameras were press people.) My date secretly paid the photographer for a copy of the photo. Then, as a surprise, he had it blown up into an 11x 14 inch poster. For some reason, I mailed the poster to my little sister, and she kept it in pristine condition and a few years later gave it back to me.

While I only dated that particular guy a few more times, and Corey Hart only had a few more hits (he did go on to win numerous music awards and is still famous in many countries), the poster stayed buried in a box and moved with me wherever I went.

Soon after I began writing in the late 90s, I unburied the poster and hung it on my wall, a reminder that throwing our fears to the wind is a much better way to live than treading water in a pool of regret.

GAGA became my third novel, rewritten many times over the years, and published in 2015. It is the sweet yet complex story of a woman who feels her life is stagnant, then realizes the only way to vanquish this tedium is by taking more than one risk; of understanding that we are in charge of what our lives become, and if we wait around for the right moment, if we make excuses for why we don’t do things, the right moment never comes.

You see, the right moment isn’t next year, or next week, or tomorrow. The right moment is now.

It is always now.

GAGA’s protagonist ventures beyond her comfort zone and plunges into a venture of a lifetime, but only because she says yes instead of no. If she’d said no to going undercover as a groupie and following a heartthrob rocker on his comeback tour, there would have been no book. GAGA, like the memorable poster that hangs next to my desk, reminds us that the old adage is true: Life is short.

Trust me on this, especially if you are still young. It seems like only yesterday I was standing on a stage singing a song with a famous rocker. In real years, that was decades ago. And yet every day, as I being my writing, I look at that photo like a talisman, for that critical moment caught in time was a jumping off point for me—a sort of catalyst—though I did not know it until years later.

Have you ever thrown your fears to the wind? Do you have a reminder of some kind—a photo, saying, or personal story of bravery—to lift you up, to keep you going when you want to jump ship? Or perhaps your own jumping off moment?

Look, you don’t have to go onstage with a rock band to prove you are fearless. There are countless ways in which to do this. But do it, in whatever way works for you. Throw it out there. Throw it out there now.

What’s the worst that can happen?