Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Featured Author: E.M. Tippetts

I'm happy to welcome E.M. Tippetts, another sister in crime, to A Blue Million Books. You're in for a triple treat today, as she's here with an excerpt from her novel, Nobody's Damsel, and also for a chat, and a guest post.

About the book:

Chloe has just completed her masters degree in forensic science and taken her first job in a crime lab, where she is stalked by the paparazzi. Not because of who she is, but because of whom she's married to: Jason Vanderholt, the hottest actor in Hollywood. When her first case is an abduction of a child, she has to cope with her memories of being a crime victim herself at a young age, while thousands of her husband's screaming fans cheer for her marriage to fail and spread rumors he's hooked up with his latest costar. Jason and Chloe must balance their celebrity marriage with two demanding careers in order to keep the happily ever after they promised each other at their wedding. The odds are entirely against them.

Interview with E.M. Tippetts:

Emily, how did you come up with the title Nobody's Damsel?

Nobody’s Damsel is the sequel to Someone Else’s Fairytale (though you don’t need to read Book 1 to understand Book 2). I wanted to keep with the fairytale theme, but also convey that my main character finds happily ever after a hard sell.

Each of my titles has a hidden meaning too. Someone Else’s Fairytale is about the fairytale of someone in the cast, and while Nobody’s Damsel can convey that my main character doesn’t need to be rescued by a handsome prince, the true meaning of the title is conveyed towards the end of the book.

How did you create the plot for this book?

Someone Else’s Fairytale is a romance, and thus doesn’t lend itself to sequels. I’d have to either put the main couple through real turmoil (which would get old after a few books), or, as many other authors do, use an ensemble cast and have each one step up in turn to fall in love. Since this pairing of a forensic scientist and a Hollywood actor is the main draw to the series, that’s not a feasible solution.

So I had to craft a plot that would enable me to expand this franchise into a series, and that’s why Damsel uses the bones of a police procedural for its plot structure. Criminal cases are the sort of thing that repeat over and over with infinite variations. Later books will also use Jason’s job, making films and television. This way we can all spend more time with Chloe and Jason and have a reason for being there, in their world, following another story.

That's great. I love sequels. How do you come up with your cover art? Are you happy with it?

I hired a cover designer for Fairytale, initially, and intended to use her for all my books, but when I showed her my own mock up version of a cover for Fairytale, she told me I simply had to use it. Since I’m not a designer (I know how to use Photoshop because I’m a digital scrapbooker), I had to show the cover to a lot of people and get a lot of positive feedback before I decided to use it. I then designed the cover of Nobody’s Damsel so that it would look similar.

All the rest of my covers, I use a designer for. It’s important to know what you don’t know, and I don’t know cover design. I merely got lucky when I created a book cover that people loved. I don’t have the skills to do it again on purpose.

As for what I think of the cover, I sort of cringe every time I see it and hope against hope that I’m the only one. The cover artist, I have to say, is a dorky writer who eats far too much chocolate, but will insist that such a thing isn’t possible.

Sounds like my kind of girl! Names. Sometimes it's so hard to come up with just the right one. How do you name your characters?

Baby name websites! That and using Google for last names – I type in the name and see if I get hits. If I get none, it’s clearly a very stupid idea for a name. If any living human ever had it, they erased all evidence of the fact.

I also make sure that each character’s name starts with a different first letter unless I want the reader to associate two characters with each other. Married couple minor characters may both have the same first initial, for example.

Are any of your characters inspired by real people?

There are a lot of personal touches in my books. While the main characters have bits and pieces of real people in them, I always switch it up so that the character isn’t based on any one person.

But there are minor characters and objects taken straight from reality. Boots, the cat owned by Chloe’s in-laws was a real cat who passed away not long before the book went to press. I was talking to his owner who was very upset, so I offered to put him in the book so he could live on.

The car that Kyra, one of the minor characters, drives is a real car previously owned by my best friend (and the dedicatee of Someone Else’s Fairytale). She had to sell that car and again, I offered to immortalize it in the book so that she didn’t have to really say goodbye.

And then there are a lot of in-jokes between me and my best friend about where events are located, but I can’t reveal them without giving away information about my friend, who isn’t a public figure and deserves her privacy.

With which of your characters would you most like to be stuck on a deserted island?

None of them! After what I put them through? Are you kidding? They’d torture me, no doubt. Though I always go for a happy ending, the road to the ride off into the sunset is always a rough one.

How do you handle criticism of your work?

There are two kinds of criticism I face, criticism from other writers and criticism from fans. For writerly criticism I draw on my experience at the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, which uses the following critique style:

- The whole group (there were 17 of us) reads your story
- We all meet together and each person gets 3 minutes to critique your story and say what’s wrong with it
- At the end, you may ask for clarification of points and say thank you. You cannot argue.

This, I think is the only way to deal with criticism. Allow it to happen, take it on board when it makes sense to you, and never, ever argue. After I attended Clarion West, I joined a writers group that used the same critique style and met with them once a month for ten years, so I’m quite used to this form of criticism.

Criticism from fans is more new to me, but here I have a different approach. I don’t believe bad reviews exist, really. There are two kinds of reviews, ones from your target audience and ones from outside your target audience, which will always sound negative. There’s little point arguing with or stressing over what these people say. Rather, you let their reviews help deter other people like them from picking up your book.

That's a good philosophy. What about routines? Do you have one for writing? Do you work better at night, in the afternoon, or in the morning?

I don’t have the luxury of a routine, and I think that makes me lucky. In order to write at all, I need to be able to write anywhere, with any space of time I can find. I do a lot of writing on the couch while my boys play with Legos on the floor, and a lot of writing while sitting on my bed after dinner, but I can also write while on travel, while stuck in a train station, while my children play at the park. Maybe someday, when my kids are older, I’ll have routines, but right now I can’t afford them.

You are quite prolific. Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do when it happens?

Writer’s block, for me, is a symptom that something in the story isn’t working, so that’s when I get analytical. I’ll draw out the plot in my mind, examine the characters, and look at the sequence of scenes. I appreciate writer’s block because it makes the book better in the end, even if it’s not fun to endure. If I can’t diagnose the problem, I’ll use my husband as a sounding board, and if this fails, I seek help from other writers and listen to their diagnoses.

Having said that, I don’t produce perfect novels, so a lot of imperfections do not cause writer’s block for me. It’s the big issues that derail the plot or damage character chemistry that pull me up short. I actually hope to get more and more writer’s block as I go on, because I’d take that to mean I’m even more aware of all the ways my writing is lacking.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love to listen to music and watch movies and television. I don’t own a television or radio and rarely go to the movies, so these are all a treat for me. This just shows how much time I spend on writing. It’s a full time job on top of being a stay-at-home mother (which is also a full time job). People are often amazed at how many hours a week I spend writing, plotting, breaking scenes, and editing, but I don’t see why it should be surprising. If you want to do good work, you’ve got to put in the hours. Most jobs don’t require 40+ hours a week because bosses are mean. To get things done requires a real time investment.

I agree. You live in London. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

With my family. I plan to enjoy every moment I can of my children growing up because these are days that will never come again. Wherever they are is where I want to be, and once they’re grown, I look forward to having it be just my husband and I again. He’s been my best friend for over a decade and has always supported my writing. I in turn support him by moving wherever we need to for his job. Anywhere can be home, as long as it’s with the people I love.

You are so right about enjoying every moment. Though I enjoy both my sons as a grown up and an almost grown up, those early days are precious ones. What are you working on now besides raising your children?

I am working on the sequel to my YA book, Castles on the Sand. This sequel is new adult, rather than YA, and the challenge is that the viewpoint character has schizophrenia. My experience with how mental illness is portrayed in the arts isn’t positive. Too often the mentally ill person is caricature, dangerous or evil, or the subject of comedy. This story is about one man trying to hold it together and get over the girlfriend he dumped years ago, if only she’d stop hanging around. It’s hard to love your best friend when you feel thoroughly unlovable.

Wow. Sounds great. Puleeease come back and tell us about it when it's out.

More books by E.M. Tippetts:

Excerpt from Nobody's Damsel:

When I hauled the glass door of the convenience store open, the first thing I saw was the current issue of Entertainment Weekly with a picture of Jason and Gigi Malone on the cover. Gigi had her blue eyes wide and innocent and bit her lip for effect. She wore a business suit, while Jason stood behind her in a gray t-shirt that stretched over the contours of his biceps. His blue eyes were slightly narrowed and gazed out with smoldering intensity. His dark hair was longer than he wore it now, and with one hand he’d reached around Gigi and was unbuttoning the top button of her blouse. A swirling tattoo snaked up his arm. They’d added the tattoo digitally when someone at the studio decided it would give him greater sex appeal.

Even in a picture, his gaze brought me up short. I looked back at the white car and saw another vehicle pull into the station and park next to it. Two cars at this place at this hour? I ducked inside, only to see what was on the rest of the magazine rack.

Photo after photo of my scowling face burned into my retinas. “Trouble in Paradise?” said one headline. “Jason Vanderholt’s Leading Lady No More!” “Yes, Jason, You Can Do Better!” “How Did She Ever Turn Jason V.’s Head?” “Still Working the Backup Plan?” That last one was under a picture of me wearing my backpack, on my way home from classes.

It was official: according to the media, Jason and I were through.

The door chimed behind me and I made myself walk. A picture of me reading the headlines would just be too perfect, so I ducked down an aisle devoted to a hundred different flavors of beef jerky and headed for the glass fronted refrigerator in the back while I tried to collect my thoughts. I had to get home and get ready for work in a couple of hours. Calling someone seemed like an overreaction. This was my life now. I was famous by association, and I couldn’t hide from that forever. What I needed to do was just walk out, head back to the house, and ignore that stupid car.

But a glance out of the corner of my eye let me know that the person who’d followed me in was a burly, sullen looking man who stood just inside the door, his arms folded across his chest. He didn’t seem like a photographer, and I wished he did. That carriage and the way he looked the room over screamed out that he was casing the store. The last thing I needed right now was to be caught up in a holdup. When I looked over at the person working the register, I saw it was a young woman, likely not even out of her teens. She read a magazine, completely oblivious to the threatening figure in the doorway.

In a play for time, I grabbed a bottle of water, its smooth plastic cool against the palm of my hand, and headed up to the counter, only to remember that I didn’t have my wallet on me, just a credit card, and on that credit card was my married name, Chloe Vanderholt. People seemed to think it was an odd decision for me to take Jason’s last name (and yes, he used his real name for his career), but my maiden name, Winters, belonged to my absent, married-to-another-woman father and the half brother who once tried to kill me. Much as I hated the harassment that came with being a Vanderholt, I was happy to be a Vanderholt. I just wished I had a secret identity I could whip out in a situation like this.

I glanced back and saw the guy was on his way over to join me at the counter. With my thumb, I turned my engagement ring around so that the seven carat stone rested against my palm. It was a stupid thing to wear on a run, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave it at my sister-in-law’s house. It was worth nearly as much as said house.

The guy was right behind me, now, out of my line of sight. I fumbled my credit card out onto the counter and the girl picked it up, swiped it, glanced at the back, then froze. Her hazel eyes registered shock as she looked up at me.

I took a deep breath. I could handle this.

“Are you related?”

“To?” I played dumb.

“Jason Vanderholt.” She said it like I must be a total idiot not to know his name. I wondered if she were from out of town because it was well known around Albuquerque that the Vanderholts were local. Jason visited all the time. That was how he and I were able to have a relationship while I was an undergrad at the University of New Mexico.

“Vanderholt’s my husband’s name.”

“So are you related to him by marriage?”

I shrugged as if I didn’t know or much care. “Maybe.” I scrawled my signature on the receipt and slid it across the counter.
The man behind me shifted his weight and cleared his throat. I sensed, before I saw, him start to sidle around me and I backed away from the counter, turned, and made a break for outside.

“Chloe,” he said.

I skidded to a stop and my hands hit the glass of the door, hard.

The girl behind the counter screamed.

The guy began to laugh and readjusted his baseball cap, his blue eyes sparkling with amusement.

“Jason," I said, "what are you doing here?”

Guest post by E.M. Tippetts

Writers: Otters vs. Seals

I was at a writers convention in Albuquerque when one of the panelists (on a panel I’ve long since forgotten the name of) explained the difference between otters and seals. Seals, she claimed, were easy to train. The did a trick, you gave them a reward, and they knew they’d get the reward every time they did a trick. Otters, on the other hand, were hard to train. When they do a trick and get a reward, they immediately do a different trick, believing that they need to continue to impress if they want to keep getting rewards. Readers, this author claimed, liked seals. Writers tend to be otters.

Now, I don’t claim to know anything about training otters or seals, but the author had a point. How often do we see what looks like the same book written and rewritten sailing up the bestseller lists? How many authors can we think of who seem to always have the same story out with different names and maybe a different setting? And how many of us authors would rather drive nails through our toes than repeat the stories we’ve already told? How often do we look at a new book as an opportunity to try something new and grow artistically? And does this really mean that the only people who can sell a lot of books are the ones with no real range? I don’t claim to have definitive answers here, but I do have thoughts.

My first thought is that telling the same story and delivering the same feel aren’t equal. Readers want the same feeling they got from your last book, and telling the same story might achieve this or it might not. Rather than just retell the same story, I think we as writers should dig deeper into what it was about the story that the readers liked. Was it the strong main character? Then keep your main characters strong. Was it the dreamy love interest? Then keep going the dreamy route. We can deliver a comparable experience without just rehashing old material. Whenever we do something new, we shouldn’t take a flying leap into the abyss of the unknown, but rather take a few tried and true building blocks for a starting point.

My second thought is that readers aren’t really clueless about re-reading the same stories. They don’t particularly like it either, but if they’re going to spend good money on a book, they tend to be conservative. If you seem like you’ve gone off and done something weird, they won’t buy. It’s one thing to stretch yourself creatively, and quite another to never learn anything from what you write. Writers who are scattershot and have wildly different sales rates for their books aren’t learning what works. It’s too cynical to say that readers aren’t adventurous. They, like the rest of us, have limited time and money, and most read for pleasure. They won’t pick up an odd looking or sounding book anymore than they’d plan a holiday in a place they know absolutely nothing about.

My third thought is that this comes down to branding, as everything seems to these days. It’s not about doing the same tricks, it’s about getting across a coherent look and feel to your writing. Can we convey to the reader what sort of stories we like to tell? Is it warm and fuzzy happy ending romance or blisteringly suspenseful mystery or laid back and hilarious women’s fiction? I’m going to assert that if we can get our branding right, we writers will have more, not less freedom in what we write. Someone who picks up a book of ours with a certain expectation and has that expectation satisfied will pick up another book and another. They won’t mind that we switched up the plot or used a very different main character provided we didn’t muck with our brand. If our books are warm and fuzzy, they don’t have to all be set in the same place. If they’re suspenseful, there’s little point in always having the same crime. If they’re funny, we need to know if it’s our style writing or our character that gets the laughs and keep whichever it is.

As you can probably guess, I’ve been working hard on my brand, and not because I’m turning into a seal. I’ll always be an otter, but I want people to be able to tell me apart from all the other otters out there. That, I think, is the crux of the issue. We as writers need to be memorable by choosing what impression we want to make, and then making that impression consistently. Having said that, I’m not sure I accomplish this at all! But I hope I understand the theory, at the very least.

About the author:

Emily Mah Tippetts writes romance as E.M. Tippetts and science fiction and fantasy as Emily Mah. She is a former attorney with degrees in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University and business law from UCLA.

Originally from New Mexico, she now lives in London with her family. When she isn't chasing her small children or writing, she designs jewelry.

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