In 2000 she took a break from fiction to teach, write articles on the craft and establish WORDS @ WORK, her manuscript review service. She is currently mentor and adjunct faculty member for Seton Hill University’s masters program: Writing Popular Fiction.
Leslie's latest novel, THE CHICK PALACE, was just released as an eBook. She's here today to tell us about this newest venture, answer a few questions, and to offer a bit of advice.
What came to you first about this story? A memory? A quote? Is it based on anything that actually happened to you?
Setting came first. A small NJ lake I call “Lake Allamuchy” in the book has been part of my family for 6 generations. I knew it would be the perfect place to explore a long lasting friendship between Johanna & Lilly, my 2 empty-nesters with divergent backgrounds. I did, indeed, go south to college as a Yankee, having never been farther than my native Delaware.
My writer buddy Barbara O’Connor has an abandoned tree house where she and her funny next door neighbor were meeting occasionally.
Their husbands named it The Chick Palace. Voila.
Alas, That was the easy part.
I needed a plot! I had Lilly forced to share her cottage~~with the husband she has divorced twice ”Ex-ex,” and his paramour, a hot NYC graphic designer. Funny & full of potential but the draft still needed some je ne sais quoi. Then my mother died. Quite unexpectedly. Dad gave each of us children a small amount of her ashes. That was my ah ha moment; I’d found my hook for Johanna. She can’t bring herself to scatter her mother’s ashes as she deals with family issues and stews over her new role as “Materfamilias.”
The story and plot points are complete fiction. As an aside, however, the book is sprinkled start to finish with real episodes. To name a few:
· My brother really did embellish my sister’s Ken & Barbie.
· While grilling on the patio my husband inadvertently smoked a massive black snake out of the cottage roof rafters & down onto his head and shoulders.
· Dad really blew TAPS out the window one midnight when I lingered too long in my boyfriend’s car in our driveway.
· Cottage living? Indeed we still share flushes.
Was there any part of it that ended up on the proverbial cutting floor? Something you fought to keep in, and lost?
Plenty got cut~~all of it my rambling yet beloved flashbacks to Johanna & Lilly in college c.30 years earlier. I teach writing the novel and should have known better. My critique partners pounced and I reluctantly agreed, c.70% had to go. They helped me see more clearly & thus keep only the flashbacks relevant to present day action.
(A plug here for the importance of cold readers & critique partners!)
The only thing that didn’t pass my agent was the word “bling” for splintered sunlight on the lake surface. I mention this because it’s the kind of minutia all writers deal with all the time. In the end, my agent won.
What's been your experience once THE CHICK PALACE hit the market?
Joyful tears and vindication! It had been rejected on the grounds that characters on the “far side of fifty” are too old for today’s market. I revised and added a more substantial younger-characters subplot based on graffiti & sneaky behavior of my protagonists’ kids. But in the end it was chosen by B&N because they did indeed want to target “the far side of fifty.”
This is my 31st book and first in this brave new techie world. My agent placed it with Barnes & Noble’s “Nook First.” It debuted the day after Christmas. Thanks to their promotion and word of mouth, it spent 2 weeks in the top ten and even shot to #1 on the eBook best seller list. Heady stuff looking at The Chick Palace snuggled up to James Patterson, Ann Patchett, The Help, Heaven is for Real… . That translates to c.30,000 copies sold in 3 weeks.
I received a wonderful e-mail from the B&N editor telling me my sales confirm their belief that women’s fiction and mid-life women readers are a driving force in today’s market. It’s also marked as a staff favorite. (I repeat: vindication.)
After the January exclusive with B&N, it’s now at Amazon/Kindle and more widely available.
What have you done to promote it?
B&N promoted it heavily all month and I added e-mails blasts, the book cover as my Facebook profile, and daily blogs offering snippets, photos and links.
It never gets easier and the publishing sands are shifting beneath our feet as I type. From kid lit to adult fiction, you have only to follow the blogs, twitters, public events, &/or classroom visits of pros like Claire Cook or Carla Neggers; Brian Lies & Barbara O’Connor; new YA voices Kimberly Marcus or Jessica Warman to see how well-oiled promotion engines remain part of the writing life.
What's your fabulous writing advice for somebody just starting out? For writers with lots of experience? For someone thinking of giving up?
For those starting out I reply as a teacher of novel writing at the master level & a freelance mss consultant:
· Read everything in the genre you write. 20 -30 titles for starters, published within the past 5 years.
· I cannot emphasize this enough: Beware of the glorified ease of bypassing the agent/publisher/editor route and self-publishing instead. Whether eBook or hard copy, every manuscript benefits from~~demands~~cold reading and thoughtful professional critique.
· If you go it alone, it’s worth your time and investment in a writers’ group (close by or online), writing conferences, &/or freelance manuscript consultation.
For those who’ve been in the game awhile: I share your exhaustion, elation, depression, determination. I spent the first 10 years writing to the market: 30 books for multiple houses from Harlequin to Scholastic. I’ve written as work-for-hire (a packager), a handful under other writers’ names, a few for existing teen series, five as Kate Chester for my own series HEAR NO EVIL. My steamy romances paid the mortgage & consistently hit genre fiction bestseller lists. My single title books for kids won awards and are still used in classrooms.
Then the dry spell… .
I lost my Scholastic editor and could never sell them another story. The romance treadmill lost its charm and burned me out. I spent the next 10 years fielding rejections for my manuscripts from the heart. My pit bull agents (Denise Marcil and Katie Kotchman, who had not made a dime off of me in lo those 10 years) shook more publishing bushes than I knew were planted. We struck pay dirt last summer.
And a final bit of free, fabulous advice for inspiration I give to my students:
· Rent the DVD of Cross Creek (and watch the additional interviews), the somewhat fictionalized story of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
· Get yourself to her preserved homestead Cross Creek, FL for that matter. (Or Hemingway’s in Cuba, they tell me.)
Lilly has such a ring of truth to her. How did you, a non-Southerner, create such an honest portrayal?
I try to stretch myself as a writer & The Chick Palace was my first foray into first person point of view. Writing as Boston bred/New Jersey resident Johanna was easy, even if she had the tougher plot line.
As for Lilly! As a Yankee at Queens College (now Queens University of Charlotte) I was an observer. So much was new & exotic that impressions of what set “all of y’all” apart have stayed with me. As well, some of my dearest friends are southern transplants. Those TX, SC, MS buddies who write were invaluable critique partners. (I realize I paint this with a very, very broad brush). I think I ran every bit of Lilly’s dialogue past one pro or another.
Any tips on how you make setting work so well?
I have a reputation for vivid settings which I attribute to being a visual learner. My degree’s in art. I think visually; I gravitate to books with a strong sense of place and atmosphere.
I also attribute it to churning out novels while raising three children. (My protagonists have always been folks around me I could pester: pediatricians during all those visits, cranberry growers, sailors, boatyard owners, cops, firefighters…)
I set my stories under my feet, atmosphere I know intimately: “Lake Allamuchy,” NJ, the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts; the harbors of coastal New England; rural Chadds Ford, PA. During our four years in Pittsburgh, I wrote my Hear No Evil series for kids (as Kate Chester) and my last romance Borrowed Baby as tributes to the city. (A fabulous place for intrigue and romance, by the way.)
Where's your absolute favorite place to write?
I’ve had 5 residences and until 2 years ago it was always a dedicated office, first with a ten-ton IBM Selectric, then one or another PCs. I switched to a MacBook and the laptop now lets me write most anywhere, from my sunroom to, um, the bed I’m sitting in right now. (Adjusts pillows)
Thanks, Leslie! We loved having you here. Come back soon!
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Even better, click on over to Barnes and Noble or Amazon and order THE CHICK PALACE. You are in for a real treat.