Responding to a strange review

Okay. So. I wasn’t planning to spend time on a sunny Sunday writing a blog, but I feel compelled to, so here we go.

My edgy new YA, RULES OF FALLING, is hitting the stands tomorrow. The book is available for free to members on Netgalley and Booksirens for the next few months. It has been years in the making, so I feel liberated as well as excited!!

Here is the summary:

Erica O’Donnell is hardly the quintessential high school senior. She doesn’t have a driver’s license. She’s never been to a concert. Sports are out of the question. She doesn’t own a pair of heels. No boy has ever asked her out. All of this for good reason: Erica faints. A lot. And at the most inconvenient times. 

Chronic fainting, also known as syncope, keeps Erica on the sidelines as the odd-girl out. Luckily, Lindsay Bennett hovers nearby to catch Erica each time she nose-dives to the floor. Lindsay isn’t only Erica’s best friend—for four years she’s been her savior. 

But things are about to change. 

When Lindsay breaks up with her boyfriend Adam to pursue a married man, Erica is intrigued. But as Lindsay’s relationship intensifies, Erica finds her own world spinning out of control: from covering up her friend’s affair, to hiding her feelings for Adam, to casting suspicion when a string of arson fires sweeps through the town.

Gradually peeling away layers of deception from those she trusts the most, Erica must decide how far she is willing to go to uncover truths—and how many people will get burned in the process.

While pre-sales are strong and the reviews have been overwhelmingly wonderful thus far (happy dance!) there is one review that perplexes me. A recent reviewer gave the book three stars (totally fine by me) but wrote a rather unusual review. Number one rule as a writer: NEVER EVER open dialogue when someone leaves anything negative. This rule, of course, is for obvious reasons. Also, as a writer, we learn that reviews are not attacks on us personally. But this one is so odd that I have to write about it, if only to make myself feel better. Writers, after all, are stuck in our own heads much of the time, and it only takes one dirty look to push us off balance, if only temporarily.

Firstly, the reviewer called the main character Eliza instead of Erica (???) and then she bashed the research on the volunteer fireman elements of the book. For example, she mentions that there is no way a high school boy could be a volunteer fireman. But here’s what’s weird: She doesn’t live in the United States where I do and where the story takes place. Each state in the US, each county, and even each township offer different rules and regulations regarding training and hiring of volunteer firefighters.

#1: I am a private tutor in the Southeast US and have worked with two high school-age volunteer firemen in my area. One of them I interviewed at length. Everything you read in the book is correct with regards to my area. Additionally, I once dated a volunteer fireman (waaaay back in time) who was a senior in my rural high school and volunteered for our local department.

#2: Some areas near me offer junior (14+) volunteer fire training and high school (18+) volunteer fire training. Our local high school teaches courses on firefighting; part of that training is practicum outside the classroom.

#3: I conduct YEARS of research before any book goes to print. My agent wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would I. I am a research freak. It’s what I love and what I do. You can rest assured that the details in all of my books are spot-on. I have a reputation to uphold and readers to cater to, and I take my work seriously.

#4: This particular book is based loosely on different personal stories put together. I won’t get into the specifics, as they are TOO personal. But each element, from the illicit affair to the suffering of syncope, comes from a seed of truth regarding someone I’ve known in my life, whether in high school or beyond. This is sometimes how fiction works: we think of a personal situation and twist it until it looks unfamiliar. Like painting an abstract version of a sunset.

#5: I would really love some high school reviewers. I love ALL readers, no matter what age. But I find that many adults forget what it’s like to be a teen. Even I have to remind myself on occasion. If you can’t put on your young adult hat while reading young adult books, then go read a grownup book, which, by the way, I’ve written as well! ; )

An upside to my day: A young girl on Instagram sent me a message thanking me for giving a shoutout to POTS (a debilitating type of syncope); she said she could relate to the main character’s plight. This warms my heart in a way I cannot describe, even as a writer!

In closing, I hate whiners. So please understand this blog isn’t so that I can whine. It’s more about reminding readers that most writers really do their research. Writers read. Writers observe. Writers aim to please. We have sore necks, sore backs, and sore wrists. We ignore the calls of other things in life in order to stay focused. We work our asses off so readers may enjoy a few hours escaping for a while. We really do.

Remember this while reading books: Writers are human beings before we are ever writers.

Take care of one another and play nice.

https://www.amazon.com/Rules-Falling-Leslie-Tall-Manning-ebook/dp/B09HQ5WWQR/ref

My latest YA is finally here! RULES OF FALLING

Photo by Morristowne Photography, 2008
Cover design by Jay Kenton Manning, 2021

Finally!

Hello happy readers! My latest Young Adult novel, RULES OF FALLING, will be available for purchase on Amazon on November 15, 2021. So, it took six months longer than we’d hoped. Better late than never!

***********

Erica O’Donnell is hardly the quintessential high school senior. She doesn’t have a driver’s license. She’s never been to a concert. Sports are out of the question. She doesn’t own a pair of heels. No boy has ever asked her out. All of this for good reason: Erica faints. A lot. And at the most inconvenient times. 

Chronic fainting, also known as syncope, keeps Erica on the sidelines as the odd-girl out. Luckily, Lindsay Bennett hovers nearby to catch Erica each time she nose-dives to the floor. Lindsay isn’t only Erica’s best friend—for four years she’s been her savior. 

But things are about to change. 

When Lindsay breaks up with her boyfriend Adam to pursue a married man, Erica is intrigued. But as Lindsay’s relationship intensifies, Erica finds her own world spinning out of control: from covering up her friend’s affair, to hiding her feelings for Adam, to casting suspicion when a string of arson fires sweeps through the town.

Gradually peeling away layers of deception from those she trusts the most, Erica must decide how far she is willing to go to uncover truths—and how many people will get burned in the process.

For ages 16 and up.

**********

I will write another blog soon to explain where the idea came from and how I went about conducting research for such a unique topic!

In the meantime, if you’d like an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) feel free to let me know. Limited copies available, so request soon!

The only thing left is to get a blurb on the cover. Maybe it will be yours!

Hope you all are happy and finding peace in these strange days. Take care of one another, be still for a few moments, and dig into a good book!

: )

Trigger Warnings VS Spoilers

Along with a love for reading novels, I love reading book reviews. I must read ten to twenty reviews a week, and not just books I’m interested in, but all kinds of books. I do this because I like to see how today’s reviewers have adapted over time, how they navigate within an ever-changing publishing world, and their different styles of review writing.

In pre-social media days, the only reviewers one could find were in magazines and major newspapers, and on Public Radio. They were usually older, with a degree in journalism or communication. Today, anyone can call him or herself a reviewer. For an author like myself, having so many people reviewing books is both a positive and negative aspect of the industry, but I will go down that twisted tunnel in a future blog post.

A short while back, I stumbled onto a review site I’d never seen before. This particular reviewer—let’s call her “Sally”—is in her early twenties and has been reviewing books for two years. This does not mean that Sally is a well-rounded reader, for most of what she reviews are Young Adult and New Adult mystery/romance. But she has found a niche within the genre and consistently reviews one book a week. Sally is a careful and relatively solid writer. She enjoys receiving free books in exchange for honest reviews, a common trait among young reviewers today. She is not one of those pretenders who slams down ten books at a time while tossing them all the same amount of stars, and writes reviews riddled with typos. Sadly, this is one of the negative sides of open forum reviewing.

Okay. So back to Sally.

A short time ago, one of her reviews jumped out at me because she did something that pissed me off: Sally gave away the storyline while offering trigger warnings.

Up until a few years ago, publishers did not offer trigger warnings on book covers, nor did they detail them in their reviews. As a young person, I read everything I could get my hands on from Stephen King to Jack London. If the author frightened me or made me cry, then he did what was intended: he affected me. When I began writing full-time in the late 1990’s, the phrase “trigger warning” wasn’t even in the industry’s vocabulary. Writers could write about monsters, aliens, pedophiles, rapists, war, arsonists, abusive parents, robbers, etc., and no books offered a trigger warning beforehand. Perhaps this is what made reading exciting.

Unfortunately, when Sally reviewed this particular book, she shared specific scenes within the story that could be deemed shocking to someone…or no one. One of her trigger warnings cautioned that the book has a scene where a girl cuts her finger and has to go to the emergency room for stitches. Her other warnings included abusive parents and a mean dog.

As a published author, I make sure my readers know what the book is about by the back matter. If the word “murder” or “demon” or “arson” or “creep” is on the back cover, doesn’t it stand to reason that an anxiety-ridden person may choose not to read the book? Is it really necessary for writers and publishers and reviewers to worry about every single reader who may or may not have a fear of something? Of anything?

I recently read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. To begin with, there’s the title. What else do I need to know about this book? It’s obviously about a murder. Then I read the back matter. Yup. Horrific true story of a murder of an entire family. I read the book for the literary quality, even though I knew it would be upsetting. I’m not going to call the publisher and tell them to put a trigger warning on the cover. If you don’t want a book to upset you, then don’t read it. Not sure by the back matter if the book may trigger some anxiety? Then ask around. Read some accredited reviews, and not just those from speed readers. There’s almost no excuse today NOT to know what a book is about before reading it. It should not be up to the author or the publisher to add trigger warnings to every book about every single situation that may or may not upset a reader.

Sally screwed up as a reviewer. By offering so many trigger warnings, she, in effect, gave away much of the story, and that is never a good thing, certainly not for the author who will lose possible sales. I plan not to read the book because too much was given away.

Look, I am sympathetic. I work with young adults for a living and have held them in my arms during a global pandemic. I know people with mental illness; friends who suffer from anxiety. And I sympathize with all of them. I really do.

But when it comes to reviewing books, please remember that less is best. I only want to know how you feel about the plot and the characters and their personal journeys. I don’t want to know the details of every single scene because you think that warning me ahead of time will help in some way. Trust me. I don’t need you doing me any favors. I can figure out what to read on my own. When a trigger becomes a spoiler, dear reviewer, you’ve gone too far.

My First Podcast!! Wha??

As a writer with a background in theatre, I love story telling, speaking at schools, libraries, and conferences. Well, I was finally part of a totally new experience: being interviewed for a podcast. And not just any podcast. Storybeat, hosted by the incredible writer and interviewer, Steve Cuden.

While this may not seem like a big deal to those of you who grew up with a cell phone as an appendage and make videos all day long of putting on lipstick, watching your kitten play the piano, or falling off a skateboard, this is sort of new for me. When I’m on stage, I can be whatever a script requires of me, play a simple tune on my old high school violin, do improv with a group of friends. I did movie extra work for years in Los Angeles, was lucky enough to be on a couple of game shows, met many movie and television stars without fainting. Lately, I’ve been reading book excerpts on Youtube, which I find incredibly fun. 

But this faceless “radio” thing? This is something new.

I am not going to take up space writing about what the interview was about, or how I feel about my own voice (who likes their own voice anyway?) But I am dropping a link below for you to listen to my very first podcast because I’d like to share it with you. Recordings are often done in a studio, and studios are shut down at the moment, so we used Zoom for the interview. Really, it just sounds like a telephone conversation.

In any case, it’s my first one, but hopefully not my last. If you listen, I hope you enjoy it, and if you are a writer, I hope it offers you some helpful information.

Have a great day, stay safe, and be well.

Sorry…could not add the link for some reason. Feel free to copy and paste in your browser.  : )

https://www.storybeat.net/leslie-tall-manning/

 

 

Coincidence or Not?

five bulb lights
Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

Maybe we like finding coincidences in the world because they represent guideposts for us to follow as we meander through life. Maybe we try to find them where they don’t exist at all, or ignore them altogether. Perhaps there are coincidences in nearly everything we do or see. And maybe it’s the writer in me, with an imagination that sees the world like a vast and exciting conglomerated story, trying to embellish moments that would otherwise be boring.

But…

BUT…

What if coincidences are all around us, all the time, like an integral part of the natural order of things, and it is up to us to look for them, spot them, and pay attention to them? Like cave people using a sixth sense for survival long before vocal language, or a mommy knowing her daughter is sick when they live a thousand miles apart, or knowing the phone will ring and who the caller will be.

It is probably a little of all of the above. In any case, I notice coincidences quite a bit of the time, and I always have. Especially between the pages of a book, whether a journal or a fictional novel, or a magazine article. I see them so often that I usually don’t even bother to mention them to anyone, other than my husband. And while I am a lover of science before a believer in the unseen, I do wonder about coincidences and how they play a role in our writings, dreams, lives; how they are all connected. How past, present, and future are interchangeable, or at least aware of one another, and how there is only time because man needs something to keep his life orderly.

But I will let you be the judge.

Throughout history, there have been so many prophetic ideas that there have been entire books dedicated to the subject. I would like to share a few that stand out for me as some of the most interesting.

Did you know that in the mid 1500s, Nostradamus wrote that a fire one century in the future would nearly burn London to the ground? This is what he scripted: “The blood of the just will be demanded of London, Burnt by the fire in the year 66.” One hundred years later, in 1666, people watched in horror as one-third of London burned to ashes, and 100,000 citizens were left homeless. Was his prediction prophetic? Was he just sitting around writing, stream-of-conscious-style, or did thoughts come to him as a warning that he felt compelled to share with readers of the future?

Nostradamus went on to mention other pivotal moments, such as the French Revolution of 1789: “From the enslaved people, songs, chants and demands, The princes and lords are held captive in prisons: In the future by such headless idiots These will be taken as divine utterances … Before the war comes The great wall will fall, The King will be executed; his death, coming too soon, will be lamented…”

And this one, among others, which some historians suspect relates to Hitler: “From the depths of the West of Europe A young child will be born of poor people, He who by his tongue will seduce a great troop; His fame will increase towards the realm of the East.”

Are these writings simply meanderings that could have other meanings? Did Nostradamus have prophetic powers? Or do some of us go out of our way to find hidden meanings in between the words?

Here is a dream United States President Abraham Lincoln had only three days before his untimely death: “There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘He was killed by an assassin.’ Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream.”

The above quotes are from the tomes of real-life history. So then, what about writers of fiction, where the imagination is expected to go a little crazy, to reach beyond real life expectations?

Check out this tid-bit from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Oddessey, written in 1968. Is he describing the Internet? A system of communication we take for granted today, but was only part of the imagined world of a sci-fi writer? “One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers… Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.”

How about the earbuds used by in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which hit the shelves in 1953, seven years prior to the “thimble” ear buds which hit the market in 1960. Is this a case of life imitating art when Bradbury speaks of Mildred, his wife? “And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sounds, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.”

Even before Bradbury was born in 1920, writer Ambrose Bierce, born in 1842 and died in 1914, predicted a “Watson” Computer that could beat humans at chess. Did any of you see Watson, developed by IBM, on the game show Jeopardy?

There are so many examples, it was hard to decide which ones to quote from. However, this next one, which I heard on NPR many years ago, gives me the most ookies. Seriously. It makes the little hairs on arms rise up, like a cold spot in an old creepy house. E.M. Forster predicts video chatting in his 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops”. This scene takes place in an underground pod, where the protagonist lives. A woman keeps in touch with thousands of people she will never see in person, and ideas are shared via a massive system that links all of earth’s inhabitants: “But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.”

1909!! Can you imagine thinking up an invention like this when even the first television was decades away? When people could only travel nationally by rail or coach, or internationally by ship?

So. Whether you believe in prophecy or not, it is sort of cool to think that maybe, just an itty bitty maybe, we humans all have a bit of a talent for predicting the future, or perhaps bits and pieces of it.

My first novel from the late nineties has never been seen by my agent nor has it been published. The story has a main character by the name of Theo Browning. Right after I finished the book, I was looking at a magazine in a grocery store checkout. I don’t even remember the name of the magazine, because I didn’t buy them, only read them while waiting for the cashier to get to me. While standing there, I read the letter from the editor, something else I never did, and the editor, Dominique Browning, was talking about her kid, a son. She mentioned his name. Theo. There it was, Theo Browning. Right there in the magazine, like it was waiting for me to see it. To this day, I have no idea why. I bought the magazine and pored over every page, but I could find nothing that would explain why I had stumbled across this coincidence. I just remember thinking it was strange, and pretty cool.

In 1999, as I was in the midst of writing another novel (also never published) about a woman with breast cancer, I was in the midst of conducting researching stats that I had printed out from books at the library. (Ah, the olden days.) I knew nothing of the disease, and was basing my protagonist on a woman I had read about in a book. As I was going through the pages to make sure my research was spot-on, one of my sisters called to tell me she had breast cancer. What’s really strange, besides the fact that breast cancer does not run in my family, is the type of cancer I had chosen for the book: Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. The same type my sister had. Later, I changed the protagonist’s cancer type so it wouldn’t sound like I was stealing it from my sis. Who, thankfully, is a breast cancer survivor.

Back in 2006, when I wrote the early version of a YA book called Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town (now published), I was just finishing up the ending when someone sent me a link to a PBS show where families were chosen to live for months in other-worldly places, like the Montana frontier, or an old house in 1990 London. The whole premise of Upside Down is modern-day people living in the North Carolina back country for four months. I did not watch the PBS video until I’d already sent the book off to my agent, for fear it would stop my in my tracks. Since the book was published, I have seen most of the shows. Luckily, there are enough differences that help the book stand apart, though readers have mentioned the comparison from time to time.

My adult novel, Maggie’s Dream, about a Rosie the riveter, published in 2017 (though it was written over the course of many years) has an interesting coincidence: The last Rosie, Elinor Otto, took a final flight in a C-17 at the age of 98…just two months after the release of my book. Where was this flight? In Long Beach, California. Where was she honored? At Cal State Long Beach. Where did I attend college? Take a wild guess.

Then there is my latest adult novel, Knock on Wood. This book was originally written in 1998 as a play, and over the course of 20 years (yes, that number is correct), I worked on it from time to time in between other projects. Right as I was putting together the acknowledgements page, newspaper headlines started popping up regarding the tragic deaths of more than a handful of racehorses. Well, without spoilers, the book has a subplot regarding the possible downfall of a racehorse. Not only that, but something else happened: the novel goes into a disease that is spread by birds. In effect, bird flu. And while the book is not about a pandemic, I find the coincidence sort of creepy. If you read the book, you will know what I mean. I am afraid to say too much for fear of ruining the story. But if you do read it, please respond in the comments below, or on facebook, or on Goodreads. I’d really love to hear what readers have to say; whether or not you spotted the coincidence, or whether or not you think there is one at all.

Because, of course, I am a slave to my wild imagination, and it could have gotten away from me.

As a writer, reader, blogger, or human in general, have you ever spotted strange coincidences in your life? Did you hear a news story that you’d just had a dream about, or come across a novel with a plot you were planning to write? Have you ever written a sentence or a scene, only to see it realized in a Netflix movie? Was there a moment where the hairs went up on your arms because of a coincidence? Did it leave you feeling perplexed or afraid? Did it solidify the idea that you are on the right track?

Do share. I love talking about the interesting parts of life that we often don’t have the time to talk about. And with all the sh** going on right now, some of you have a little more free time to contemplate life’s mysteries.

Stay safe and healthy my friends.

20200316_142847

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…