SHELLEY RILEY – From the Kentucky Derby to Fantasy

Shelley Riley had a deep love for horses from an early age, and this love took her from humble beginnings at the Alameda County Fairgrounds to the storied barn area of Churchill Downs.

 

The story of Casual Lies began on a snowy January day in Lexington, Kentucky. While attending a thoroughbred sale, Shelley glanced up and made eye contact with a tiny, fuzzy eight-month-old foal that nobody else seemed to want. And the rest is the stuff of fairytales.

That nondescript colt went on to take Shelley and her husband Jim, an accomplished horseman in his own right, on an adventure of a lifetime. They went on to compete in all three Triple Crown Races—another first at the time. By finishing second in the 118th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1992, Casual Lies rewarded Shelley with the highest finish for a horse trained by a woman in the history of the Kentucky Derby. A record that still stands thirty years later.

In Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure, Shelley gives the reader a fun look behind the scenes of what that adventure was like for her and Jim.

Why did you wait two decades to write your memoir about Casual Lies? It would have been far different if I had written the memoir right after the Triple Crown. I had a lot of material, mainly since I’d been writing a Daily Diary for both the Daily Racing Form as well as one for a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper. By waiting, the book became less a purge and more of a cathartic remembrance of a remarkable horse who electrified my world for far too short a time.

In 2012, I joined the Tri-Valley Branch of the California Writer’s Club. My thought was to go from writing special feature articles for local newspapers and get an idea of how to finish a middle-grade novel that I’d started many years before. Instead, I was encouraged to write a memoir. It was the best advice I’d received since Charlie Whittingham had encouraged me to run Casual Lies in the Kentucky Derby.

Two things happened by sitting down and rereading the daily diaries I’d written. I reconnected with the things that made my horse special. I remembered all the fantastic things that we experienced because of Casual Lies. Truthfully, it’s still hard to believe it really happened.

Using the equity in our house, I’d bought a tiny colt that nobody else wanted. I shared how he grew into a headstrong, charismatic horse that took us on a journey you couldn’t have replicated if you had all the money in the world.

Fans from all over the world have read Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure. You’ll laugh, you might cry a little, and trust me when I say I had no trouble poking fun at myself.

Although Casual Lies didn’t win the Kentucky Derby, he still holds a place in history. But for me, he was my bright-eyed and mischievous Stanley.

So how did you go from writing a memoir to penning Sword and Sorcery Fantasy novels? When I was a kid, I was an avid reader. But each book always had to have something to do with horses. As I grew older, my taste in literature became increasingly eclectic. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Wilbur Smith, Larry McMurtry, Steven King, Dean Kootz, etc. the list would be endless. But my all-time favorite, as it turns out, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove a close second.

A perfect book doesn’t come with enough pages. A good story involves a fellowship that you can feel a part of. For me, a good story is one where you find yourself invested in the fellowship’s success, you’re a part of the team, and when the story comes to an end, you’re loath to say goodbye to your new friends.

I love writing short stories. I find that a thought or an image often triggers my inspiration. The idea for Into Madness – The Born from Stone Saga came from pictures I took of gargoyles situated atop a gothic cathedral when I was touring Europe.

It was one of these shots that brought about Mystislav, a dragon made of stone, who comes to life under a full moon. He flies across the city and lands on the donjon tower of Carolingian castle. Mystislav hears the cries of a newborn babe and . . .

It wasn’t a short story, but it was a strong beginning for a YA Fantasy. As it turned out, the beginning was the easy part. Now I had to write a story. It took over four years.

Tell us about Into Madness, your first book in the Born From Stone series. The marketing blurb goes like this; After a decade in hiding, captured, and imprisoned, Ravin Carolingian is left to question everything she thought she knew about herself.
Still, as the line between ally and enemy blurs, one thing becomes clear. If Ravin’s going to help the Carolingian people, she must first escape the evil that walks the halls of the place she once called home.

As a reader, I like strong characters, adventure, and scenes that engage the reader’s senses. So that is how I chose to write this story. It never ceases to amaze me how the characters occasionally grab the bit and runoff—going in an entirely different direction than I had first imagined.

So what is the title of the second book, and when is the release date? The second book is Hearts Divided, and the third is The Reckoning. Hearts Divided is nearing completion. I have been receiving good-natured demands for the release date. Words in bold type like; NOW! and TOMORROW? have been hitting my inbox. Those types of demands tend to light a fire. Every writer knows that you don’t want to piss off the reader.

16 Comments

  1. Violet Moore

    Hello Shelley, I am pleased to see you featured on George’s blog. It’s one of my favorites for meeting new writers and refreshing friendships with others.

    I enjoyed reading Casual Lies but being an advanced reader for Into Madness was an adventure into a new world.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Hi Vi, It’s been a minute, for sure. We need to get together on the phone and compare notes. Your comments on Into Madness were invaluable and greatly appreciated.

      Reply
  2. Rhonda Lane

    Had to refresh my memory, so I watched a video of the ’92 Derby. Casual Lies almost had the Derby winner Lil E. Tee. So close.

    They both shot out in front of the rest of the pack, including the hotshot favorite Arazi.

    Here’s the video: https://youtu.be/5mBQxqtsyTc

    I can’t wait to read the book about it.

    Both Casual Lies and Into Madness are on my Kindle.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Rhonda. I must confess that whenever I watch the replay of the race, I still hold my breath. So close and yet . . .

      Still, first or second on the day, I was a winner for having the uncommon good fortune of having horses in my life and Casual Lies in particular.

      I’m thrilled that you’re going to read my books. I hope you enjoy them both.

      Reply
  3. Vinnie Hansen

    It was fun to read this and get to know you better, Shelley. You gave your horse a great name. Who knew that it would become a book title?

    You are the third person I know who has taken inspiration from gargoyles. The other two are Gigi Pandian and Kirsten Weiss, both of whom have gargoyle characters in one of their series.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Vinnie. As a prolific writer yourself, whose excellent work I’ve become familiar with, you understand how important a title can be to our finished story. A superb runner tends to make for a great name in horse racing. A few come to mind; Secretariat, California Chrome, and Seattle Slew, to name just a few. But all horses have to be named before they run their first race. I dedicated an entire chapter in the memoir to naming thoroughbreds, and I gathered a few fun stories about how some of the better-known horses came by their names. Also, thanks for the heads-up; I will check out Gigi and Kirsten’s books.

      Reply
  4. Marie Sutro

    Congrats on a wonderful story, and on making Derby history!

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Marie. I wish I could say that it was a dream come true, but in reality, I never even imagined that in over two decades of racing, I would one day saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby, let alone all three legs of the Triple Crown. And then along came a horse that wouldn’t be denied. That was a miracle.

      Reply
  5. CINDY SAMPLE

    Your story is so fascinating, Shelley. I’ve just downloaded CASUAL LIES. I can’t wait to read it.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Cindy. I do hope you enjoy reading Stanley’s story. Around the barn, Casual Lies was called Stanley. I’ve often said I should have named the memoir The Horse With Two Names. I tried to give the reader a look at all the things you don’t get to see on the day of race telecasts. Which means I had no problem poking fun at myself.

      Reply
  6. Linda

    I am among those readers patiently waiting for the release of Hearts Divided.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Oh, Linda, how you pile on the guilt and bless you for it, for I need both the carrot and a liberal amount of the stick.

      Reply
  7. Michael A. Black

    Shelley, your personal life sounds like an adventure. It’s interesting how you gravitated to fantasy. Good luck with your writing and your horses.

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you so much for your comment, Michael. Adventure is the perfect word to describe my life. I’ve often thought about how different it might have been if my father hadn’t bought me my first horse for $250. To go from riding a mixed breed mare near Moffatt Field in the 1960s to saddling a horse in the Kentucky Derby, even I find that hard to believe.

      Reply
  8. Donnell Ann Bell

    Fascinating interview, George and Shelley! That’s some serious love for horses to use the equity in your house. Thanks for introducing us to Shelley, George! Best wishes on Casual Lies!

    Reply
    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, Donnell. And yes, buying horses with borrowed money is not something I would do now. Still, at the time, and with many years ahead of us, it didn’t seem like such a risk. When we first started training horses, many years before Casual Lies came along, we would buy horses on what was called a run-out. By way of explanation, with a run-out, a set price is set for the horse in question, and then they were paid for through their future earnings. If there were no earnings, the breeder received nothing. We only did that one time, and we didn’t make any money, nor did the breeder. Usually, the horses you could buy on a run-out weren’t very well-bred. But it was a start, and we learned a lot from that experience. I treated every horse that came into my barn the same, no matter the pedigree. A good horse can come from anywhere. Look at this year’s Kentucky Derby winner. He was claimed for $30,000 and went on to win the Run for the Roses.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

ANNE HAMILTON FOWLER – Memoir Author With an Inspiring Story

Anne Fowler, only child of Audrey and Stewart Hamilton, was raised in Toronto, where she attended Leaside High School and Toronto Western Hospital School of Nursing. In 1962 American Airlines beckoned her to Dallas, Texas, and life in the sky as a flight attendant. Twice divorced, Anne first married a young minister from Louisiana and then long-time best friend Dr. Bob Fowler of Toronto. They raised a daughter and son who later produced one grandchild each… a grandson and granddaughter. In 2001, Anne retired, closed her company Hamilton Enterprises and left behind a thirty-year career in Human Resources. She relocated to El Progreso, Honduras, to volunteer at a clinic where ophthalmic and dental care are provided for patients who lack the funds to be treated elsewhere. During this time, Anne developed the Visiting Doctor program for international ophthalmologists, started the Healthy Living Education project in local elementary schools, and helped with a variety of clinic and community activities. In 2005, after purchasing property in the small north coast village of El Porvenir, she built Hamilton Benest House, a home that provides accommodation for visiting dentists, doctors, teachers, and other volunteers. Her major program in 2021 is Phase Two of the Healthy Living Program. This annual dental program, conducted by two Canadian dental teams, provides dental care for over 1,000 elementary school students. Anne’s programs continue to thrive, and she is still developing community initiatives designed to improve the lives of Hondurans. Anne divides her year between El Porvenir and her Haliburton cottage north of Toronto

I began writing my memoir I’ve Worn Many Hats the summer of 2019 when two of my best friends moved out to British Columbia. I knew there would be a big hole in my summer at the cottage, so on a dare, I started writing. The process turned out to not only alleviate boredom during Covid lockdown but provided a benefit I couldn’t have foreseen; it forced me to look at some “incidents” in my life. Incidents which I had never really faced and a process that would have given me true closure. A blurb about the “plot,” which covers 81 years of my life, appears on the book’s cover.

Is there another book in my future? Probably not. Although it’s been suggested by readers that I develop a storyline “spin off” from one of “my adventures,” not sure that I have the stamina! I am still pretty busy half the year managing and developing new projects in Honduras, the current one being a community mobile library. The other half, I am acting like a true retiree sitting on the dock at my cottage or murdering the game of golf!

One of your questions that I WILL answer is whether or not an association membership helped me or my writing and the answer is yes. A little bit of back story here… up until last Spring, I always told everyone that “I would join Facebook over my dead body.” My family said I had to do it for marketing purposes, so I did. But where to find “friends”!!? I scoured FB lists and friended hundreds of writers/authors because I believed that they “might” be a help in my finishing the book and could give me advice. The resulting support proved to be a really interesting experience; surprising and somewhat overwhelming! I heard so many stories about other authors’ experiences trying to write during Covid I entertained the possibility of writing another book titled “Writing in The Time of Covid.” I have joined many authors groups on Facebook. I have been invited through these memberships to participate in a number of things, such as author takeover days, interviews, and numerous blogs. Feedback has been positive with many questions asked (especially about my work in Honduras) and has undoubtedly increased book sales. Although frankly, making money was not the primary purpose of writing, any profit will go towards my Honduran projects. The book was self-published on Amazon this past October. Here is the publishing info

My contact information:

Web site: https://anne.honduranhope.net

Email: anne.fowler@xplornet.ca

Facebook: Anne Hamilton Fowler

Link to a video interview that I made in Oct/21: https://youtu.be/Zs-SZXzH6Lg

For Canadian readers:  Paperback – https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1778350321
eBook – https://www.amazon.ca/dp/BO9HDN55FV
For US readers:  Paperback – https://www.amazon.com/dp/1778350321
eBook – https://www.amazon.com/dp/BO9HDN55FV

 

4 Comments

  1. Anne Fowler

    Thank you Michael. who knows, after I settle back into cottage life for the summer, I may regain my inspiration!!!

    Reply
  2. Anne Fowler

    Thank you Gail! I appreciate your support and comments.

    Reply
  3. Gail

    I’ve Worn Many Hats is a fascinating story about a fascinating person who continues to make the world a better place!

    My hat off to you Anne Fowler!

    Reply
  4. Michael A. Black

    you are a truly humanitarian person and personify the best in us. God bless you for your work and best of luck to you in your writing. I hope you do decide to write that next book based on one of your adventures.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

LUCIA BERLIN – A Manual For Cleaning Women

Recently two events reminded me of Lucia Berlin and her remarkable collection of stories, A Manual For Cleaning Women. There is a television series out, The Cleaning Lady. But what got me was Author Chip Livingston mentioning her on FaceBook. I went into my notes and found a piece I wrote about this wonderful book.

To not give away too much, I removed most of what I originally wrote. It is a wonderful read.

Berlin’s stories are interwoven, almost as memoir. In A Manual For Cleaning Women,  the reader can imagine the stories are interconnected memoirs. The old writers saw, write what you know is visible throughout the work. She brings her knowledge and experiences to life so that we, the readers, understand the emotion that she and her characters experience. “It has been seven years since you died.” The emotional pull hits the reader like a hammer.

Berlin has no fear of reflecting on her life experiences as she addresses addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, suicide, and depression. She weaves a web about an abusive, alcoholic, and suicidal mother throughout the stories. She tells the reader about her grandfather, who sexually abused her and her younger sister.

There is a similarity in the down-to-earth and straightforward style with Alice Munro; both speak in the voice of their characters. There is no pretentiousness, no judgment. Unlike Munro, her work seems always to be dark depression. In one scene, we see this darkness when the protagonist contemplates her sister Sally’s death. “Every day, you’ve said good-bye a little. Oh, just get it over with, for God’s sake.” Anyone who has experienced the slow death of a loved one understands this completely. However, she can turn an otherwise sad scene into one of joy. One example is while waiting for Sally to die, she moves her under the bedroom window. Sally sees the sky and feels the warmth of the sun. The reader shares the feeling of beauty and warmth.

Having lived in Alameda County, California, for fifty years, I’m able to recognize many of the settings and the accuracy of Berlin’s work. Her description, “the affluent foggy Montclair hills…. Beneath Zion Lutheran church is a big black-and-white sign that says WATCH OUT FOR FALLING ROCKS.” I once lived in Zion church as the caretaker. I can verify that the sign has been there for at least fifty years.

Berlin weaves her protagonist’s story in and around the other characters in the collection.

In one story, Berlin changes format and tells the entire story in a series of letters to Conchi. The letters flow and give the reader a timeline of the character’s life. Beginning with college and meeting a man with whom she falls in love. There is joy in her affair cannot that will not be long lived. Her parents’ object, take her out of school, and force her to go to Europe. When she tells her lover, he knows they are finished. He tells her that it’s over, “you’ll… marry some asshole.” In typical Berlin style, she destroys any hope of happiness.

Berlin’s work is full of contradiction, despair, and lack of hope. But through it all, her work is believable and full of imagery. No more so than in this paragraph from “Electric Car, El Paso.”

Mrs. Snowden … passed me fig newtons wrapped in talcum Kleenex. The cookie expanded in my mouth like Japanese flowers, like a burst pillow. I gagged and wept. Mamie smiled and passed me a sachet-dusted handkerchief, . . ..”

Not only does she bring scenes to life through imagery, but she does the same with objects such as her mother’s ratty old coat. “It had a fur collar. Oh, the poor matted fur, once silver, yellowed now like the peed-on backsides of polar bears in zoos” (245).

Everything she writes is realistic. Her characters are believable, imbued with human traits, blemishes, and goodness. All are flawed, allowing the reader to understand their actions and motives.

Many of the characters in this collection reappear in various stories throughout the collection. We have plenty of time to get to know them. But even in stories about one character, Berlin develops them in depth, with simple phrases and words.

As with all her stories, the dialogue is magnificent.

An unmentioned strength in Berlin’s writing comes from another trait she shares with Alice Munro. She is non-judgmental. She presents the world as it is, blemishes and all.

         

Ramona Ausubel                                     Marie-Helene Bertino

Either Romona Ausubel (No One is Here Except All of Us) or Marie-Helene Bertino (2 AM at the Cat” s Pajamas) suggested I read this work. I can’t recall which, (maybe both)so I’ll say thank you to the two finest mentors and authors I ever had the opportunity to work with. THANK YOU!

Berlin, Lucia. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. Picador, 2015.

 

I will tell you about books I’ve read and enjoyed from time to time. When I do, you can expect reviews to appear elsewhere. gdc

 

 

(more…)

2 Comments

  1. Jan M Flynn

    Wow. My TBR list just got longer. I’m a big Alice Munro fan, as well as an admirer of fearless, lyrical memoir. And this: “In one scene, we see this darkness when the protagonist contemplates her sister Sally’s death. ‘Every day, you’ve said good-bye a little. Oh, just get it over with, for God’s sake.'” — just about guts me, as both of my beloved sisters are being slowly whittled away by chronic neurological diseases. I’d heard of “Manual” previously, but now it’s a must-read.

    Reply
  2. Michael A. Black

    She sounds like a really good writer. The imagery that you cited was powerful. It’s also interesting that she wrote short stories that were loosely tied together. I’d never heard about her before reading your blog entry. I’ll definitely have to put her on my list. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

JUDY LUSSIE – AUTHOR OF BOUGHT DAUGHTER

Judy Lussie uses her cultural background to write stories about Asian-American women. Her latest novella, Bought Daughter, is based on her grandparents’ immigration to America.

 

Judy writes women’s contemporary novels. Lake Biwa Wishes and the sequel Second Time Around were her first two novels. Her short stories have been included in several anthologies. Her most recent novel is titled Bought Daughter.

The original Moy sisters and their mother. The baby is Judy.

Bought Daughter: When she was a child, Mei-Ling’s poverty-stricken father sold her to a wealthy family. Despite her status as a Bought Daughter, she was determined to go to America. When the Chinese missionary Ah Pu proposed marriage and travel to the New World, she jumped at the chance, even though she did not believe in his God. Could a Christian and an atheist succeed in marriage? Would her past forever haunt her?

What brought you to writing? While on the Board of Directors of Presbyterian publishing Corporation, I was asked to write a week’s worth of devotions for These Days Magazine. At the time, I was the Technical Information Director of Lawrence Livermore Lab in California. This was my first experience in paid non-technical writing. As a result, I received many letters from old friends and compliments from new readers. One man wrote that his wife suffered the same disease I had–polymyositis. The following year he wrote that his wife had died. I offered my prayers. Then later he wrote that he met a widow whom he asked to marry and thanked me for supporting him with my letters. Until then, I never realized how writing could help another person.

Has association membership helped you or your writing? Yes. California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch (of which I was Program Chair), San Francisco Writers Conference (5-year volunteer), and several writing classes. I met many New York Times best-selling authors and learned more about the art of writing, publishing, and marketing.

Who is your favorite author? I have many, but Lisa See, Erica Jong, and Catherine Coulter are at the top of my list. Each one writes in a different sub-genre, but all are great writers. Lisa See writes historical novels, Erica Jong writes women’s novels, and Catherine Coulter writes crime fiction.

Do you base your characters on real people? Yes. The characters in Bought Daughter are based on my grandparents, aunts, and uncle. The character Kyoko in Second Time Around is based on my granddaughter (when she was 3). I tried making up characters, but they seemed phony.

What kind of research do you do? The research for Bought Daughter fell into my lap. While visiting Angel Island Immigration Station, I was told I could find more information in NARA (National Archives and Records Administration). Previously, as a technical information manager, I was required to send NARA information with strict requirements. Finally, I became a user instead of a contributor. When I entered the facility, I showed them my grandparents’ travel info and signed up as a researcher. The attendant wheeled a cart full of papers in both Chinese and English, which they photocopied for me. With all that information, I knew I had to share it with others. I also use online resources. Taryn Edwards provided a comprehensive list of historical resources.

Where do you place your settings –real or fictional locations? I feel my story is more accurate in the locations I visited. For my first two books, I lived in Japan for two years and skied in many ski resorts around the world. For Bought Daughter, I lived in Chicago Chinatown as a child. I visited China as an adult.

Do you have any advice for new writers? Write, write, write. Even if you just put the manuscript on a shelf. Read, read, read. Highlight passages that move your heart and soul.

Thank you, George Cramer, for inviting me to be a guest blogger.

I can be contacted by email at Sursum Corda Press, LLC. I welcome your comments and questions.

 

9 Comments

  1. Karen Pidduck Vied

    Enjoyed reading your interview Judy.
    Thanks George for sharing this. Really enjoyed reading a bit of your blog! HHS ‘62

    Reply
    • Judy Lussie

      Thank you. Hope you and George renewed a friendship.

      Reply
  2. Alyce M Gee

    Your interview gave me an insight in how you became such an accomplished author. The book also gave me information regarding the struggles of what your grandparents had to overcome. Being the ‘baby’ of that large family, I thank you for passing this history to all the younger ones in our clan.

    Reply
    • Judy Lussie

      Thank you and you’re welcome.
      Peace

      Reply
  3. Marilyn J. Dykstra

    Thanks, Judy! Interesting to read how you started writing fiction and how you base your characters and settings!

    Reply
    • Judy Lussie

      Thank you.

      Reply
  4. Michael A. Black

    Interesting interview, Judy. I live in Chicago as well and always enjoyed visiting Chinatown and see the Big decorative gate there. Your story is fascinating and your tenacity is inspiring. Good luck with your writing.

    Reply
    • Judy Lussie

      Thank you. My uncle designed the gate.

      Reply
    • Brian Gee

      That big decorative gate was designed by Judy’s and my uncle Peter. Judy is my cousin.

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

HEIDI ELIASON – Runaway to Adventure

Confessions of a Middle-Aged Runaway is an RV travel adventure about how Heidi sold her house, quit her job, bought a motorhome, and hit the road with her dog for five years. It was a journey that transformed her life.

Heidi Eliason is a freelance writer and an editor for Runaway Publishing. Her past work includes writing for an RV adventure company, producing more than fifty RV travel articles for an online news source, and developing training courses and manuals. Confessions of a Middle-Aged Runaway is her first book. It has been translated into Korean and is selling in six countries. Heidi lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find out more about Heidi’s travel and writing adventures at www.HeidiEliason.com.

Do you write in more than one genre? I write in multiple genres. Confessions is a memoir, and I’m currently working on a novel, a thriller. Although many readers have asked for a sequel to my memoir, the thriller is clamoring to be written now. I also have some ideas for a cozy mystery series, so that could be next.

What brought you to writing? I was a robust reader from an early age, but when I took a creative writing class in high school, I discovered I loved to write. I just didn’t think I could make a living at it, so I never seriously pursued it. I always figured I’d write on the side for pleasure. Oddly enough, I did end up making a good living as a writer, but I wrote training courses and manuals, not books.

During my motorhome adventure, I kept a blog to keep my family and friends informed about my journey. I also wrote RV travel articles and web content for an RV touring company. After my motorhome adventure ended, I wrote short pieces about my experience in a writing critique group, some of which were based on my blog posts. The members of that group encouraged me to turn the stories into a book. I never wanted to write a memoir, but it was such an incredible and life-changing experience, I just had to write about it.

How long did it take you to write your first book? It took six years of on and off writing to complete my memoir because there were months at a time when I didn’t work on it at all. I tried writing it as a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but it was awful!

The memoir started in disconnected five-page increments in my writing group, and I organized it into a book at some point along the way. Four years ago, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and submitted a chapter to their writing contest. It won runner-up for nonfiction (under my previous name, Heidi Young). That gave me the nudge I needed to complete the book, and it was published in 2019.

What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Finishing something is the most challenging part for me. I get so many ideas for things I want to write that I’m great at starting things, but I struggle to finish the current project I’m working on. I get distracted or want to give up when the writing gets tough and instead work on the shiny new idea that just occurred to me. I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so I don’t always know how I’m going to get to the end of the story or how I’ll keep the reader’s interest along the way. That can cause my writing to stall out sometimes. Most people call that writer’s block, but to me, it feels like a loss of interest. That tells me something needs fixing.

I decided to try writing an outline with my current book to see if that makes the writing faster and easier. I created a rough outline of about eight chapters, and then I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to start writing. The pantser in me took over. I wanted to see what my characters would do and how they would shape the story. I believe what some authors say about how their characters sometimes lead them in unexpected directions because I’ve experienced that feeling when characters take over. It’s a wonderful thing.

Has an association membership helped you or your writing? The California Writers Club Mt. Diablo Branch has been incredibly helpful to me and my writing. I’ve learned so much from the speakers and writers there, found writing critique partners, and made friendships. I also found out about the San Francisco Writers Conference during one of the meetings, and attending that was incredibly educational and inspiring.

I’m also a member of the Nonfiction Authors Association (NFAA), which provides a ton of helpful resources, some of which also apply to fiction writing. The founder of NFAA, Stephanie Chandler, has written some exceptional books about self-publishing and marketing that guided me through the publication of my book.

Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I retired from my full-time technical writing job this year, but I’ll continue to do book editing through my company, Runaway Publishing. I hope to finish my current novel in 2022, now that I have more time for writing. After that, I’ll get going on one of the many other book ideas I have waiting in the wings. Since I was born with wanderlust and my husband retired at the beginning of this year, we want to do a lot of traveling. Hopefully, the Covid-19 situation will allow us to do international travel again.

Do you have any advice for new writers? Persistence is one of the most important qualities a writer can have. You need to keep going when the rejection letters come, self-doubt settles in, you wonder what the point of it all is, or you just don’t feel like writing. Keep writing, learning your craft, and reading. If you do those things, your work will improve, and you’ll get something published. Make writing one of your first priorities, and avoid the temptation to let other tasks and responsibilities have more importance than your writing. In other words, don’t do what I did! You’ll get something published much faster.

How do our readers find you and your books?

2 Comments

  1. Heidi Eliason

    Thanks, Michael! Hitting the road in my motorhome for five years was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I highly recommend it! i met the best people and saw some amazing sights. I also read Travels with Charley and loved it. A few years ago I visited the Steinbeck Museum and saw Rocinante, or maybe it was a reproduction. I also had lunch at the Steinbeck House in Salinas, which was really interesting.

    Reply
  2. Michael A. Black

    Wow, you’ve got a lot of pluck to go on the road in an RV like that. My congratulations on the memoir. It sounds reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie, which he wrote about traveling around the US with his dog. Best of luck to you with the novel.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

DAN HOBBS writing as author BEN LEITER

Daniel Hobbs has been a city manager in seven cities across the country, in Maryland, Texas, Michigan, and California. My career took me overseas as an American local government official to W. Germany, Poland, and Japan.
I have been married to a wonderful, patient woman for 35 years, a beautiful native of Peru, who endures my anxieties and writing distractedness with good humor.

Ben Leiter is the author of four published books, available on Amazon and Kindle:

  • CITY MANAGEMENT SNAPSHOTS: ON THE RUN
  • BABY BOOMERSLOVE-BETRAYAL
  • GODS BETRAYAL: THE CREDO
  • BETRAYAL OF FATHER GARZA

Is there a thread or theme that ties your books together, even though they are of different genres? Yes, very much so. Together, these four books examine the cataclysmic collision between the expectations of the baby boomer generation and the primal forces of politics, religion, and romance.

Why the pen name Ben Leiter?  If you read any of my books, you’ll understand why immediately with the authentic, explosive nature of the material and the controversy of storylines and subplots.

Using a pen name provides me the psychological freedom to write what I want; to explore themes without embarrassing me or my family.

The name Ben Leiter translates “been leader” if you use the German pronunciation of the last name. It describes my previous profession as a city manager in seven cities.

Why do you write? Answer: To find out what I think; to figure out why I think what I think; to investigate “what it’s all about.” And to avoid boring people with my strong opinions in conversations. If I put my views on the written page, I must present them in an intelligent and interesting fashion, or the reader won’t turn the page.

Also, writing fiction allows me to explore my favorite theme of betrayal and its sub-themes involving politics, religion, and romance.

What do you want to achieve? Writing objective? Validation as a good writer who has something to say worth reading.

Favorite authors? Answer: John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Michael Connelly; Gillian Flynn, Andy Weir, Anne Lamott, Dennis Lehane, Tom Wolf, Robert Crais, Martin Cruz Smith, Leon Uris, Don Winslow. I’m reading Winslow’s The Cartel for the third time, as I did Flynn’s Gone Girl.

I’ve met and talked with Andy Weir and Bob Woodward.

Bob Woodward and I shared common associations from decades ago in Rockville, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C.

Can you describe the impact any books have had on you? I’d rather have lunch—at the risk of being lunch—with Hannibal Lector from Silence of the Lambs than with the female protagonist in Flynn’s Gone Girl. That wife-protagonist is like real-world-scary. She’s out there walking around, for sure. Flynn’s book ranks with Catcher in the Rye; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; and Exodus.

A Leon Uris book, Trinity, provided insight into what we Irish call The Troubles— the colonization atrocities of the English. (I’m part English too, but the Irish always wins out—so much more colorful.)

Tell me about your protagonist in your most recent book. Why will readers like him? My hero protagonist, Father Gabriel Alphonso Esquivel Garza, is a Hispanic-Schwarzenegger-Rambo-renegade Catholic priest with a Zorro complex. He refuses to let principles keep him from doing what is right. He is merciless in defense of children.

Are you a Pantser (write by the seat of the pants, ad hoc) or a Plotter (outline in detail before writing)? Both—here’s how and why. I rely on The Muse, or inspiration, or whatever has caught my fancy at the moment to fling words on paper. Once I have enough “somethings” on paper, I start organizing and putting them into a table of contents with detailed notes under each chapter, which is the equivalent of an outline. I then keep adding, revising. I move stuff I delete to the end of the working draft, to be probably brought forward at a future time after it has “matured.” Advice: never throw anything away.

I experience difficulty deleting my pet phrases and scenes. Some famous author said that your favorite computer key should be the delete key.

How do you vet your work? Three critique groups; two California Writing Club memberships; past developmental editing by Scott Evans, author and English professor at the University of the Pacific.

Strengths and weaknesses of your manuscripts? From the professional writing feedback I have received over the years, the strengths of my work seem to be the imagination, the creativity of the work, and the character (good and bad) of my protagonists.

My drafts have received deserved hits by critique groups for not always letting the reader know immediately what is going on and where we are at. I accept that criticism because I want to pull the reader in. I want the reader to do a little bit of head work.

I love John LeCarré’s writing with its exceptional use of indirection. I remember becoming frustrated in one of his books because I found myself on page 65 and had no idea what was going on. Then I realized. I was in the same situation as the book’s protagonist, trying to identify the traitor in The Circus, LeCarré’s name for British intelligence. The protagonist reflected the puzzle-palace-nature of the events swirling about him. Well done, John.

I also plead guilty to occasional finger waving and sermonizing, which I detest in an explicit form. I prefer my characters to carry that water for me in a hopefully more subtle fashion.

Any indications of a writing life earlier? Over my city management career, I penned many professional articles on everything from strategic planning to embezzlement, which appeared in nationwide publications. At one point, I even had my own column in a newspaper.

I always tried to make my articles interesting or to have a twist. For example, one article carried the all too true title; SOMEONE IS STEALING THE TAXPAYERSMONEY!

As budget director for a large Texas city, I always wanted to tell “the story” behind the numbers. I saw too many budget staff letting themselves get lost in the numbers or “hiding” in the numbers. I felt it important to be clear to my boss, the city manager, his bosses, the city council, and the public about exactly what the budget meant for them for the following year.

I continually rewrote the 20-page budget message at the beginning of the 500-page budget document to get the message right. One of my senior staff, exasperated at my numerous revisions, said, “You’re just a frustrated novelist.” I demurred at the time, but she was correct.

Two of my favorite quotes from that same government staff, one from a very talented colleague, “Numbers are our friends.”

Late in my career, in a job interview with a city council, I was asked why I had published so many articles. The unexpected question triggered a response that I did not know I possessed, “I guess it’s a way to leave a legacy.”

What is your educational background? I am a Case Western Reserve University Ph.D.-in-political-science-drop-out. But, I did secure a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Urban Affairs, an interdisciplinary planning degree.

My B.A. held a major in political science, with minors in English, Philosophy, and Theology.

Other writing observations? I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who share my love of books, reading, ideas, and writing.

I relish the open-endedness of the mental challenge of writing. I will never be able to exhaust it. It will wear me down first, I fear.

I respect the work ethic required to become a successful writer, whether commercially published or not.

I admire the creativity of the process and the final product.

I have had Stephen King’s experience, where I get into the story or one of the characters, and it takes on a life of its own and goes places I had not planned.

Since I developed my “rule” years ago never to go back and read a book the second time, this writing occupation gives me the justification and permission to revisit old book-friends.

I should be able to handle the rejection. In my past career, along with the public accolades and good salary, I experienced an enormous amount of criticism—it came with the job territory—on an almost weekly basis. I’m used to it; maybe I miss it and need it.

While my brother has become an accomplished amateur oil painter, I paint with words.

I want to be as accomplished as he in my own artistic genre. But better than oil painting, I can constantly revise my work.

Another reason for writing—it keeps the mind sharp. My family shows too much history of Alzheimer’s. Maybe writing will delay or forestall some of the mental ravages of old age.

Then there is the possibility that I might have something to say. Having been around for decades, I would expect myself to paint some life pictures accurately, if not brilliantly, perhaps with some insight, too, especially if I have been paying attention. Have I? Perhaps I can say something memorable about this thing we all share called the human condition. If I can, then what becomes fascinating are all the ways there are to describe this common experience: short stories, poems; essays; novels.

I like the sound of “I am a writer.”

I have always been a bookworm, loved to read. The mid-westerner in me must justify all those academic credentials and insists on looking for a practical application—writing is it.

I have been energized by writing.

Any final reflection? In my case, the most important contributor to writing was my reading at an early age and continuing non-stop the rest of my life. I was that ten-year-old kid continuing to read under the sheets after my father told me to turn the light off and go to sleep.

My website is http://benleiter.com.

3 Comments

  1. Madeline Gornell

    Great “meeting” you, really like your “painting with words,” and agree on so important to becoming a writer I think. is having been a reader at an early age! Much success!

    Reply
  2. Michael A. Black

    Your Father Garza character sounds like quite an interesting fellow. Good luck with your writing.

    Reply
  3. Michael DeGuire

    I wonder if he should have started out as a writer versus trying to work in public service. Or did the public service help craft his skills. Probably the latter

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.