Is the Bookstore Half-Empty or Half-full?

Last weekend I went to Brooklyn to visit two of my sons (the musician and the writer). We were flaneurs. We flaneused. (That should be a word.) We walked, and talked, and laughed. We ate and drank. (oh, did we they drink) It was a wonderful, non-touristy weekend in the city.

On our seven-mile journey each day, we slipped into several indie bookstores. Little bits of heaven, each one. I would rather be surrounded by books than jewels. But here’s the thing: Being surrounded by so many fantastic novels made me feel conflicted. Part of me shouted, Why bother writing, Karolyn? Why work so hard to add one more drop into this ocean of literature? Will it even be noticed?

The other side of me whispered, Go home and write.

Funny how a whisper can overpower a shout.

Building Character(s)

What’s more important than character? Nothing.

As Warren Buffet once said, “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” In life, your reputation is of utmost importance; it is your character. And it’s not so different in fiction. Characters (People) are the most important part of any story—short, long, realistic, or fantastic. Readers want to know about and relate to the characters. Then and only then will they follow along with the adventure you’ve created for them.

I’ve made the analogy that characters in novels are like people in photos: people will look longer at other people than they do at even the most beautiful landscape. Likewise, no matter how beautiful the writer’s prose, if she doesn’t create fascinating, believable, relatable characters, then readers won’t really care about the story. Have you ever noticed (of course you have) how much longer we focus on ourselves in pictures than we do on anything else? It’s the same with characters in a novel; people want to see themselves in the characters. They want to say, Yes, I do that, too! I’ve thought the same thing. I feel exactly like that.

A brilliant writer will then do horrible things to the characters so the reader is compelled to see who triumphs in the end. Bingo—bestseller!

But it’s not quite that easy. So …

This weekend I will be taking a class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City on Creating Compelling Characters with Jonathan Blum where I will learn to make my characters just exactly like YOU.

I sure hope you’ve been nice to me over the years—because not all characters triumph in the end. Some die.

(tee hee)

Writing Is Like Dieting

Most people—okay, everyone hates dieting; they just want to be fit. Similarly, many writers hate writing; they just want to “have written” something. I’ve often thought we should change the word “diet” to something without the negative connotation it brings. Like T-I-D-E. Just rearrange the letters. We could say, “I’m on a healthy tide.” Better, yes? Or this: E-D-I-T. Change the letters again, and we could say, “I’m editing my food intake.” Still better than saying, “I’m dieting.” If we edit our food intake, and edit our writing, it’s easy to see a connection.

Taking this one step further … If a person, say me, for example, gets a little lax in monitoring her food intake, and at the same time gets a little lax on the exercise front, soon she will start feeling a bit blubbery discouraged. I need to snap my priorities back in line. Similarly, if I take days (okay, weeks) off of writing, I start feeling like a failure discouraged. The trick again is to snap my writing priorities back in line, too. Just never, never, never give up, as the wise Winston Churchill once said. I’ve had that magnet above my desk for years. It’s one of my mottos. Another favorite is from George Eliot: It is never too late to be what you might have been.

IMG_2709Speaking of George Eliot, and my lack of productivity of late … I have a new writing coach: Her name is also George Eliot (I call her Georgie). As soon as she’s done being a puppy, she will anchor me at home, at my computer. She has also motivated me to read Middlemarch, the original George Eliot’s best and arguably THE best English novel of all times. It’s one of those novels I would have read if only I’d been an English major. But it’s never too late …

There’s one more reason I’ve been in writing limbo lately, and it too shall soon be corrected. My “fourth debut novel,” A Reasonable Price, has been out to lit agents for the past several months. I’ve had seventeen (!) requests for the manuscript. I’ve also had nearly that many passes. However, the last rejection letter I received mentioned a key point as to why agents are likely passing: religion. My protagonist is very religious; my antagonist is a doctor who’s playing God. You see the conflict. It makes for a very intense battle! It also possibly makes the novel too explosive for a publisher to buy it. So, because I am not championing a Catholic perspective, it’s time for another E-D-I-T.

Ten days from now I’ll be participating in an Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshop. As soon as I get my feedback from the wise and recently published Julia Fierro and my fellow classmates, I will do a rewrite and send it out to more lit agents.

How about you? Have you gotten off track of any of your goals? Hey, summer happens! We’ve given ourselves a break. Now we need to refocus. Just remember this: Never, never, never give up.


Living It Up

I was once told that I shouldn’t read so many books or watch so many movies; I should get out there and live! Interact with real people! Go biking or hiking or horseback riding, experience the world first hand! More recently I read one of those “That’s SO true” quotes that spin around Facebook; it said, “I read because I want to live MORE than just one life.” I can appreciate both perspectives, but one certainly comes more naturally to me than the other.

This week I am on a river cruise through Eastern Europe with my hubby for our ten-year wedding anniversary. For the flight over or any precious moments of downtime, I brought the incomparable Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY. A couple months ago, I devoured THE GOLDFINCH, and I am equally enjoying her first novel.

I am an introvert. I’ve known that for a few decades; that might be one reason why I’ve always been a reader and why I now love writing. (I not only love “having written,” I love sitting in a quiet room so I can listen to my characters whine and cry and beg me to save them from their nasty neighbors and inner demons.) Seriously, though, I’m at a crossroads, and I need to pick up the fork, er, whatever … Did you know these river cruises serve wine all day?

Right, so.


We spent yesterday in Vienna: a morning walk through the city center, an afternoon excursion to Schönbrunn Palace, and an evening concert of Mozart at … another palace … Anyway, I didn’t have a minute to read even one page of The Secret History, and as I crawled into bed, I was sad about that. What’s wrong with me? Even I know that was insane. Yes, Donna Tartt is THAT good, but it was VIENNA.

We’ve had a better balance today of tours and free time, which has given me time to reflect. I am having the time of my life on this trip, and I don’t want to miss a single minute of what this world has to offer, but … There’s no place like home. Next week I’ll be back home where I don’t have to choose between the gripping pages of a novel and the sound of Salzburg. There’s a time and place for everything … And when I’m in Austria, I need to listen to Mozart and eat Wiener schnitzel!

I hope that one day all those people I should be interacting with right now will struggle between getting out in the real world or reading my latest novel. So for now, auf Wiedersehen!


Are You a Noun or an Adjective?

In my last blog post, I asked the question, Who Do You Think You Are? Since then, I’ve asked several people that question face-to-face, and the answers have yielded new insight. Some people (like myself) answered with nouns (writer, traveler, etc.), more external descriptions. Others, like one man I spoke to, answered with adjectives (thoughtful, generous, etc.), more internal descriptions. This man began his list with personality traits, not hobbies, pastimes, or occupations.

A psychologist could have a heyday with this dichotomy, I’m sure. But I’m no psychologist. I just get to ponder this, and ask you what you think this says about people. Did you make your list of five quick words to describe yourself? I’m sure you did, so … did you choose nouns or adjectives? Neither answer is wrong; in fact, no personal description would be complete without both lists. It’s curious, though, what this says about people. Could it be that people who view themselves via external criteria first tend to be insecure, thus more concerned with the way the world sees them? Or maybe they’re just private people who want a shell around them. Hmm …

When it comes to writing, adjectives are almost as villainous as adverbs. But don’t take my word for it. Stephen King once said: The road to hell is paved with adverbs. And here’s strong advice against both forms of qualifiers. Good writing happens in the nouns and the verbs. Yet as a writer, when I am creating characters, I must know ALL about them. I need to know their nouns and their adjectives. In fact, I need to know their verbs and adverbs, too. I was once told I need to know when my protagonist lost his virginity. And not just when, but where, with whom, and how the experience was for him? Facts like these don’t need to be included in a novel, but a writer needs to know her characters as deeply as she knows herself—probably better than she knows herself!

This leads me directly back to how well does anyone know him- or herself? This may sound ridiculously simple, but it’s not. This is a matter scientists study relentlessly. There’s a new book out on just this topic: Mindwise, by Nichols Epley, that explores how well we know others, and in turn, how well we know ourselves. It’s one of those, the-more-you-know, the-more-you-know-you-don’t-know topics that fascinate me to no end.

Maybe I should have been an anthropologist.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Describe yourself. Go on … five quick words. Who are YOU?

As for me? Mother, wife, writer, daughter, sister. That’s my quick answer, but what if, God forbid, all my family members died? All I would have left from that list is writer. But go back ten years, and I wasn’t a writer. I was an art dealer. So which is it? And will I still be a writer ten years from now?

How do we define ourselves? My natural instinct was to start with external facts like my family members, then my vocation, but if those elements can change then how do they truly “define” us? What does define us? Do you allow other people to define you? And here’s the big one: How does the Definition of You dictate the daily decisions you make? Do you cook dinner because you love to cook, or because your family would stage a mutiny if you didn’t put dinner on the table tonight? About twenty years ago, I had to fill out forms for my son’s soccer registration. It asked for my occupation. I put down Maid & Chauffeur because that’s how I spent most of my time. But I was kidding. Sort of.

Let’s try to figure this out together, shall we? Who are you—really?

We are all born with Family; there had to be a mother and father to create you. You may or may not have siblings or grandparents. You may or may not get married or have children. Either way, these relationships could all end in an instant. Sorry if that’s harsh or morbid, but it’s true. Let’s switch to an analogy: Say you own a Honda. You are a Honda Owner. But if someone comes along and offers you a Mercedes in a straight up trade for your Honda, you’d probably jump at that. Now you are no longer a Honda Owner so it doesn’t define who you are inside. See? We shouldn’t define ourselves by anything that can be taken away. Sure you can say, I USED to be a Honda owner. You can also say, I used to be a Daughter until my parents died. Yes, it’s part of your story, but it’s not who you are. (Notice are = present tense.) None of us asked to be born so let’s eliminate Family from our definitions. Agreed?

Sex. No, I’m not talking about whether or not you engage in sex, but the basic Male/Female question. You have to be one or the other (medical abnormalities or transgender operations not withstanding), but again you had no choice in the matter. So while some of you might have said “Man” or “Woman” in your five quick words, let’s eliminate that as a factor of determining who you are because it’s kind of a default. One or the other.

Sex. Okay, now I am talking about whether or not you engage, and with whom. If you choose a member your own sex, then that becomes part of who you are, but it doesn’t have to. I wouldn’t put Heterosexual in my Top Five words, so if being Homosexual is ho-hum to you, then you don’t need to list it either as far as I’m concerned. But if you’re Gay & Proud, then include it if you want.

Skin Color is a very interesting element. We don’t choose it, but right or wrong, it usually defines us to some degree. It’s not like sex (the M/F kind) because there’s a rainbow of options. Bi-racial, tri-racial, heck, Tiger Woods describes himself as “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, Black, American Indian, Asian), yet in his case, Asian includes Chinese, Thai … oh, and he may have a Dutch ancestor back there somewhere. I imagine a black person in Africa probably wouldn’t list Black Person in their Top Five anymore than I would pick White Person in my own.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Now Careers. Careers do a better job of figuring out who we are because we can choose a career. However, some people go into their family business not because it’s their choice or calling, but because the family needs them to, or they feel obligated to, or they were pressured into it. “Occupations” are seen differently in different cultures. Americans are notorious for defining people by their profession. In the moderate amount of traveling I’ve done in my lifetime, I’ve noticed that one of the first questions my husband or I ask a new friends is, “What do you do?” Same goes for most Americans, and I’m sure many other nationalities, but not everyone. In certain countries (I could come up with a list if you wanted me to, but I’d rather get on with my thoughts), it’s considered gauche to ask a person what his or her occupation is. And, most of us could be any number of occupations. I know some people who’ve had a dozen occupations. So, count your career in your top five ONLY if believe it truly defines “who you feel you are inside” as opposed to “what you do.” If you’re a mechanic so you can pay your bills, but your heart and passion ache to get up on stage become a rock star, then don’t necessarily put Mechanic in your Top Five. 

Religion? Yes, if you have chosen your religion, then you can definitely count it. If you only go to Mass or Temple or Jamestown because your parents insist, then maybe don’t count it.

Is this starting to get tough? Good, then we’re getting somewhere. What’s next? What about your Hobbies? Running? Good. You’re a Runner. Baking cupcakes? You’re a Baker. Do you rescue injured birds, dogs, or horses? Then I’d say you’re an Animal Lover. Yes, I think Hobbies define us better than even families. It’s what we choose when we have the chance to dream. If someone gave you an all expenses paid week by yourself, what would you choose to do? Don’t just say, Lie on a beach, because we can all use a little R & R. Think of something you’d love TO DO. Don’t worry about the salary it pays. Don’t worry about your talent or your skill level. If you love to swim, but can only dog-paddle, who cares? You are a Swimmer.

What else? Blonde? Brunette? Redhead? I suppose hair color can define us to a degree, especially if you dye your hair a specific color.

I think you get where I’m going with this, so, quick. Five new words to define yourself. Go!

Me? I am a Reader, Writer, Traveler, Animal Lover, Investigator. Ha! I just discovered right now that I am an Investigator. I have an insatiable curiosity. I love to learn new stuff, so I chose the word Investigator. I like that.

What do you think about all this? I haven’t even touched on Personality Traits yet. That’s another interesting list: Confident/Insecure? Kind/Angry? Caring/Selfish? Whew! Let’s save those adjectives for another day, shall we?

So how many of your Top Five words changed? Any? All? I’d love to hear Who You Really Are!

Cloning Humans is Legal in the U.S.

Over the past two years, I have spent countless hours researching genetic engineering for my novel A Reasonable Price, and I’ve learned some pretty interesting facts.  For example, did you know:

  • The U.S. House of Representatives defeated bills to ban human cloning in 1998, 2001, 2003, and again in 2007. Did you know that? There is no federal bill of any sort that bans cloning.
  • Only fifteen states have passed laws limiting cloning and/or the use of public monies for cloning purposes. That leaves thirty-five states with no specific laws against cloning.
  • Up to 50% of Americans believe a human being has already been cloned.
  • A team of Korean scientists claims to have cloned human embryos in 2004, though none were implanted into a viable uterus. Dr. Zavos, an American citizen, claims to have cloned 14 embryos, and implanted 11 of those into viable uteruses in 2009. Several other scientists have also made claims or been vocal proponents of reproductive cloning. However, no “human clone” has ever been presented as proof of any of these claims.
  • Correspondingly, over 4000 human disorders are caused by the mutation of a single gene. Scientists have the ability to remove or alter these genes from an embryo through PGD, preimplantation genetic diagnosis. These include serious health issues such as sickle-cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s Disease, as well as odd-ball traits such as the Achoo Syndrome (tendency to sneeze at bright sunlight), the ability to roll one’s tongue, and polydactyly (the occurrence of an extra finger or toe).
  • Parents who have any of these traits can assure that their child will not have these disorders if they use IVF, in vitro fertilization, and PGD to evaluate their embryos. Therefore, theoretically, these single-cell disorders could be eliminated from the human race in a relatively short period of time.
  • There are very few steps between genetic engineering and cloning. Twenty-two species of animals have already been cloned, including sheep (famously, Dolly, the first cloned mammal), dogs, cats, mice, and even monkeys. The process is doable. It’s been done.
  • As a result of all of the above efforts, scientists have successfully “grown” human body parts and organs such as ears, trachea, kidneys, and more, without the fear or risk of rejection that is omnipresent if the transplanted organs come from another person.
  • In fact, in the words of Rebecca Taylor, “Scientists can clone human embryos as much as they want, provided they have the human eggs to do it, and in many states they could transfer those embryos to a female volunteer if they wanted.”

So my question, the concept of my novel, is this: What if there was a female fertility doctor with the ambition and courage to implant a cloned embryo in herself? Further, what if the doctor had secretly cloned one of her patient’s embryos? Who does the child really belong to? And if the cloned child falls ill, how far would the parents of the original child go to help to save his clone?

What is the price of advancing modern medicine?




Headlines Ripped From Novel!

Is there a person in America who hasn’t seen Law & Order? I don’t think so. Their shows are routinely Ripped From the Headlines! This is completely understandable because they have to produce so many shows each year. Plus, it keeps their content timely. Going as far back as 1889, Oscar Wilde said: Life imitates Art far more often than Art imitates Life.

So, Life and Art hold a longstanding, symbiotic relationship. Agreed? Great. Just don’t hold me responsible for what’s happening in the real world when my novel is published.

I started A Reasonable Price about two years ago. In fact, the germ originated nearly three years ago with phrase “the blue-eyed twin.” Four little words that never left my Swiss cheese brain. That’s how I knew the idea was a good one. It gnawed at my grey-matter until I sat down and started typing it. A Reasonable Price (originally called The Blue-Eyed Twin) is a high-concept novel; I didn’t start out thinking, “I’m going to write a high-concept novel, something seemingly ripped from the headlines.” I just wrote.

Well, more and more and more, I keep hearing about science and studies and controversies and medical advancements that are SO PERTINENT to my novel that it feels like Life is imitating my Art!

Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I practically get sick to my stomach every time I hear each new news story about (my high-concept idea)(I can’t actually tell you what it is; that would take all the fun out of it for you). I want to shout, Agents! Publishers! You want my novel NOW! Now is the time! We’ll be ahead of the inevitable trend!

Agents advise writers NOT to follow a trend in publishing because by the time a decent novel is written, edited, printed, and distributed, the trend will surely be over. But I’m ahead of the game on this one. And, if you’re in my camp, you’ll be happy to hear that I am working feverishly at getting an agent and selling my novel to a publisher. In fact, if we all knock on wood, I can tell you a little secret. (knock, knock, knock) Five, count ’em, FIVE agents have asked to read my manuscript in the past month. I’m getting closer. I’m getting excited. I’m trying very hard not to use my exclamation point key.

All right. Back to work. But wait, want even more good news? I’ve recently started my next novel, and I’m FREAKING OUT because I’m so excited about it. It’s gonna be a juicy one.

Now, if we can just get this industry to step it up a bit, you’ll finally be able to read my work for yourself. I thank you for your patience.

Be a Bone Marrow Donor

Often in this space, I rant or rave or relay personal stories. Today I have a much more serious topic to discuss. I want to encourage YOU to become a bone marrow donor, and to discuss the need to update laws concerning bone marrow transplants. Please keep reading. This process is so much simpler, and at the same time, more vital than you can imagine. Bone marrow transplants are necessary for patients with cancers of the blood and other diseases.

In the novel I have recently completed, A Reasonable Price, one of my characters is in dire need of a bone marrow transplant; another is an exact match to be the donor. This isn’t the core theme of my novel, but it plays an integral part. While researching the medical issue of bone marrow transplants, BMTs, I discovered the incredibly sad situation surrounding BMTs. When an individual needs a BMT, he will likely not survive without it. While survival rates vary based on the multitude of factors of each case, overall they are very, very good. The biggest hurdle for the patient is finding the right donor.

Bone marrow is an organ. In the United States, it is illegal to buy or sell organs. However, bone marrow regenerates in a matter of a few days or weeks, EXACTLY like blood and sperm do. In America, we have blood banks and sperm banks. Donors get paid to donate in advance of anyone’s need. Much like “typing” blood to find the right match for a patient who needs a blood transfusion, bone marrow can be donated in advance, stored, catalogued, and then be used if it is a match for the patient.

But it can be even easier than that. All that’s necessary to start is a swab from the inside of your cheek.

YOU can register your DNA at in hopes of saving a person’s life if you are their match. This is the website for a fantastic organization, the National Marrow Donor Program. It explains the details of a BMT in layperson lingo, and YOU can learn more and register to become a donor with no more effort than sending in a swab of saliva.

Equally as important as becoming a bone marrow donor is the legal issue of being able to pay donors to donate bone marrow. Doreen Flynn is the mother of three girls who all need bone marrow transplants. She was profiled on the Today Show, and also Rock Center, both on NBC. She is fighting to change the laws of bone marrow donation, and thanks to her and her lawyer, people can now receive “compensation” for their donations (in coupons and goods, just not money). That’s a start, but I encourage you to learn more and, if you feel comfortable with it, encourage your political leaders to reclassify bone marrow as a donate-able fluid.

The donation process is much easier than I imagined when I began my research. Not everyone can be a donor (there are age and health restrictions), but that makes it so much more important for YOU to consider registering at if you are able. There is a deeper need for donors of racial and ethnic diversity, so if YOU are of mixed race, your registration is even more important.

A quick side-story: About twenty years ago, I was driving 40mph on a very busy, five-lane street. It crossed many smaller residential streets. All of the sudden, I saw a toddler stepping off the curb and directly into my lane. His parents were nowhere to be seen. I slammed on my brakes, put my car in park, and ran to grab the boy. He was just old enough to point to his home, so I took him to the front door and knocked. His mother had no idea he’d gotten out of their house. To this day, I am overwhelmed by the emotion of having saved a life.

Yes, I am registered as a bone marrow donor. There’s no way of knowing if I’ll ever be called for an actual donation, but if I am, I will gladly say, Yes, I want to save someone’s life.

I encourage YOU to do the same, and share your stories here. Thank you for reading this.




Don’t Be A Pigeon

Life moves fast. If a person is driving sixty miles an hour and sees something out of the corner of his eye, he must decide right now if he should react or stay his course. While walking down a street at night, a woman must decide if the man walking toward her is friend or foe. With television, computer, and cell phone images flashing before our eyes, then changing again and again every few seconds, humans must make nearly instantaneous judgements and decisions every single day. These are important traits, like the fight or flight instinct bred into us thousands of years ago.

Today, that instinct will more likely be used to size up a potential mate we spot on the subway than to watch for a snake in the grass. (Yes, the jokes abound, but let’s try to keep our focus here, shall we?)

According to Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of Straight Talking, it takes only seven seconds for us to judge another person when we first meet them. And after that, according to me, people tend to lump others into categories just as quickly. “She’s an artsy-fartsy type.” or “He’s a suit.” The labels go on and on: hipster; geek; gay; Republican; soccer mom … But who among us is one dimensional?

I once knew a man who loved his wife as long as she behaved the way he wanted her to. Her actions were supposed to stay inside the Pigeon Hole he had labeled: WIFE. She eventually flew the coop. And, not being a homing pigeon, she never went back. Other people use the same labeling system. They have a wall full of boxes labeled SON, DAUGHTER, FRIEND, BROTHER, EMPLOYEE … “If you fit inside this box, you can be my son/daughter/friend/brother/employee.”

But that’s not love. True love cannot be crammed inside a box. If you love someone, you need to allow—even encourage—them to grow from the caterpillar you meet to the butterfly they are destined to become. It doesn’t matter how old that person is, no one should remain stagnant. Imagine if you hadn’t changed your beliefs one iota from the day you turned 21. Same hairstyle, same career, same political and religious beliefs. HELP! How horrible would that be? Love allows people to grow and change. Even politicians must change, and fortunately, many of them have. It’s the ones who haven’t ever varied on any decision who scare me the most. (cough, John McCain)

Tying this back to literature and the world of writing, I know that publishers like an author to limit themselves to one category. They must protect their advertising budgets and bottom line. But even that industry seems to be changing, if slowly. J.K. Rowling and John Grisham come instantly to mind. This, too, is a good thing, I believe.

But back to real life.

I have spoken to three people in the past week who’ve been frustrated by others’ expectations and judgements. I said to my friends, “Relax. Be true to yourself. You cannot live your life to keep other people happy. If your friends and family don’t love you for who you are, they’ll have to learn how to deal with it.” And usually, they will. Or sometimes, people move on. Even familial relationships change over time. In a world where we’re encouraged to “think outside the box” and “color outside the lines,” how can people stay so rigid so as not to allow others to be true to themselves? I think the answer is based in FEAR, fear of change. I get that, really I do, but from my experience, that fear usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, since I’m not a psychologist and I can’t charge you for this wisdom, I think I’ll just print up some t-shirts. On the front they will say: I’M NOT A PIGEON. On the back they will say: AND NEITHER ARE YOU.

What do you say? Would you buy one of my t-shirts?