Sneak Peek: His Heart Aflame

When published my first book ten months ago, I had very little idea what I was doing.  It was definitely an impulsive decision to self-publish through Amazon rather than submit it to a traditional publisher.  And let’s be honest; I was aiming for Harlequin but sort of got in a huff after participating in their So You Think You Can Write contest.  I wasn’t sure whether to be mad at them or disappointed in myself, so instead I self-published with absolutely no plans for marketing or promotion.

I’ve learned an awful lot during those ten months, but the next few days are going to show whether I’ve learned enough to make a difference or not.  My newest effort is scheduled for release in five days, and I am so keyed up about it that I may not sleep between now and then.

I’m pretty much guaranteed to eat mass quantities of chocolate.

There will probably be wine involved as well.

Aw, hell, forget the “probably.”  We all know there’s going to be wine involved.

At any rate, His Heart Aflame will be available on Saturday, December 20 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, CreateSpace, and iBooks.  It’s available for pre-order right now, and Her House Divided, Book #1 in my Beach Haven series, is now available at all of those same outlets.

Just to tempt you all just a little bit (and maybe to pat myself on the back just a tad), I’d like to share Chapter One right here in my blog.  Please enjoy!

Chapter One

Sean Jackson knew better than to drive in this condition. He was an experienced First Responder who had worked more than his fair share of accident scenes created by idiots who didn’t think they were too tired to drive. He knew first-hand that driving tired could be just as dangerous as driving drunk, but here he was, tired beyond all belief, driving his exhausted self home down a dark stretch of road and calling himself every name in the book.

He opened the window to let in the fresh air and a few drops of rain, and turned up the volume of the vintage Lynyrd Skynyrd he always played when he was exhausted after a fire call. Just a few more miles, and he’d be home safely. A few more miles, and he’d be able to take a long, hot shower and fall into his nice soft bed for at least a few hours.

Until it was time to go to work, or until some idiot started another grass fire.

He groaned out loud. Normally, he could handle the pressure of a full-time job and his work as a volunteer firefighter. But there had been a rash of grass fires over the past few weeks that had pushed him to the point where he just wasn’t sure how much longer he could continue doing both. He couldn’t remember the last time he had slept more than two or three hours at a stretch.

Sean wished he had a cup of coffee in the truck with him. He was beyond the point where caffeine was going to do him any good, but at least the warmth and steam would help keep his eyes open. He blinked rapidly and cleared his throat, ready to start singing along with Gimme Three Steps until he realized that he was too tired to remember the words.

He was just going to have to pull over on the shoulder and sleep it off right there in the front seat. That was all there was to it. He was just too damned exhausted to drive those last few miles. All he had to do was round the curve on County Road 388, where the shoulder widened out and gave a nice smooth spot to park and—

The woman came out of nowhere.

He had a split second to take in the fact that she wore something white that seemed to glow in his headlights. He caught a glimpse of a pale face and wide terrified eyes, and then he was spinning out of control on the wet pavement as he jerked the wheel to the left. He pumped the brakes and swore, not sure if he was angrier at himself for driving when his reflexes were this slow, or at that stupid woman for running down a dark country road at four o’clock in the morning.

He wasn’t sleepy any more.

He finally fought the truck to a stop on the wrong side of the road, facing the opposite direction. He sat there for a moment, breathing deeply.

There had been no thud. He hadn’t hit the woman. At least, he didn’t think he had. Sean jumped out and ran around front to examine the front of his truck. No new dents, no blood, no sign of any kind of impact. He hadn’t hurt anyone.

But where was she? He reached under the seat for his flashlight and Detroit Tigers baseball cap. Pulling the hat brim down low to keep the rain out of his eyes, he ventured into the darkness and aimed the light towards the woods.

“Miss?” he called. “Are you hurt? Do you need help?”

Silence.

“I can help you. I’m with the Beach Haven Fire Department. Miss?”

He thought he heard something behind him, but it was just the metallic clang of raindrops hitting his truck. Really could have used this rain an hour ago to help put out the grass fire, he thought. Not doing me much good now.

He crossed the road and peered intently into the trees. He did not want to go in there. It wasn’t exactly a jungle wilderness full of dangerous beasts, but he didn’t care to come up against beasts of the non-dangerous sort in the wee hours of the morning on a lonely country road. Still, it was his responsibility to look for the woman, damn it.

The very stupid woman who enjoyed running out in front of moving vehicles on dark rainy nights. He had a few choice words for her when he found her.

If he found her. “Come on, help a guy out here,” he shouted. “It’s wet and I’m tired and I just want to go home. I’m not in the mood for Hide and Seek.” The smell of smoke and sweat arose from his clothes as the rain soaked through to his skin, and the tap-tap-tap of his headache was quickly becoming more of a bang-bang-bang against the inside of his skull.

He skidded down the slight incline from the shoulder of the road into the trees. Damn, it was dark. No moon, no stars, just heavy clouds and too many trees bursting with an abundance of late-spring leaves. The flashlight beam seemed pitifully insignificant, swallowed up by the night.

Ahead of him, a pair of tiny yellow eyes glittered his light. He swallowed and forced himself to take another step, nearly jumping out of his skin when his shirt caught on a tree branch.

Sean took a deep breath and told himself to calm down. You’ve been in the woods in the dark before, he scolded himself. Camping, hunting — hell, the whole department was out here just a couple months ago looking for body parts after that train/pedestrian accident. This is nothing compared to that. Man up.

Determined, he pushed aside a pine branch, only to have it slip out of his grasp and give him a wet slap in the face.

Okay, time to re-think this. He was basically getting his butt handed to him by the wet, dark woods, and he was armed with a flashlight and a lifelong familiarity with the area. Was it really possible that a woman in a big, bulky dress was slipping around silently in these same woods without a light? He shined the light around again, looking for flashes of white or pieces of fabric caught on the same kind of branches that had torn his t-shirt, but saw nothing. He then stood perfectly still and listened.

Nothing but rain hitting the leaves with increasing intensity.

There is no one else out here, he realized.

Which meant one of two things: Either the mystery woman had vanished into thin air, or he had imagined her. Neither answer really appealed to him, but he decided that he’d rather solve the mystery from somewhere safe and warm. And preferably dry. He turned and slogged his way back through the trees and scrambled back up the incline to the road.

He was surprised to see the tailgate of his truck hanging open. That was strange; he remembered shoving his gear bag in there under the tonneau cover when they’d cleared the scene, but he could have sworn he’d latched it. He shined the light inside to satisfy himself that his things were still there, nodding when he saw the vague outlines of his belongings, and slammed it shut before climbing back into the seat.

Damn, he was tired. So tired that he’d driven all this way with his tailgate hanging open, which could have cost him his all of the gear and tools he kept stowed in the back of his truck. So tired that he had imagined seeing a strange woman in white running down a lonely country road in the middle of the night.

I wouldn’t be this tired if I did this full-time, he thought. Sure, the pros worked several days in a row, but they got to go off-duty afterward. They didn’t have to work two jobs, either. And full-time professional firefighters seemed to earn a certain degree of respect that volunteers just didn’t get. Sean thought about the interview he’d gone to earlier in the week in a Grand Rapids suburb and wondered for the hundredth time what he would do if they actually offered him the job.

One thing he knew for sure: no full-time fire department was going to hire him if they knew he was seeing imaginary women on rainy country roads.

He had to have imagined her. He so wiped out that he was hallucinating. That was the only possible explanation. It certainly made more sense than some crazy lady running around in a white dress in the middle of the night and then disappearing without a trace. It made more sense, but it wasn’t comforting to realize that he had almost wrecked his truck over a fatigue-induced hallucination.

Get a grip, Jackson. Go home, get some rest, and don’t ever mention this to anyone.

Right. He put the truck in gear, turned it around, and cranked up the volume just as Sweet Home Alabama started. It was enough to get him home, where he pulled into his attached garage and stumbled toward the door to his home. He knew he should hang his wet gear and make a few phone calls to let people know he was going to be late for work, but he just didn’t care.

He stepped out of his boots on his way through the door and started shucking wet clothes on his way to the bedroom. All thoughts of taking a shower were gone, replaced by visions of a soft pillow and a comfortable bed. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a little voice was trying to remind him that he stunk, and that his bedding was going to stink, too; he firmly told the annoying little voice to shut the hell up and collapsed face-down on top of the quilted comforter.

Sure was a pretty hallucination, he thought, and then he was out.

Advertisements

Hey, Buttercup!

Well, the time has come for me to be honest about some things.  A few weeks ago, I announced that I had entered Harlequin’s annual So You Think You Can Write contest.   Those of you who follow my blog on a regular basis may have noticed that I have been conspicuously silent about my progress in the competition.

I washed out.  Bombed. Crashed and burned.  Didn’t even make the first cut.

It was, however, a great experience.  It forced me to really buckle down on this novel that has consumed so much of my life for so long.  It made me get excited about Her House Divided again when I had begun to lose faith in my own work, and it made me dig up enough courage to actually submit my first chapter to Harlequin’s Special Edition imprint.

Because of my participation in this contest, I have doubled the number of people I interact with on Twitter.  I have chatted with editors and published authors, and I have learned so much about writing and publishing that my brain is working on a serious overload right now.

I am okay with not making the Top 50.  After all, there were more than 650 entries. Pretty stiff competition, especially for my first try.

Then, a few days after the Top 50 were announced, there came another announcement:  Some of those finalists had been disqualified or unable to finish their manuscript in time.  A second round of names would be announced over the following days.

And all hell broke loose. All of a sudden, it seemed as though everyone I had been talking to on Twitter got “the magic email”.  Other writers left and right started posting things like “I made Top 50!” and “I’m in!”  And I was happy for them.  Really.

Okay, I was happy for most of them.

As one of the other competitors has dubbed it, I am suffering from Bridesmaid Syndrome.  I am happy for the other writers and I truly wish them all the best in the competition, but I’m also feeling a bit . . . well, not exactly jealous, but pretty darn close.  It’s not that I’m asking Why them?  It’s more a matter of my asking Why not me? 

Still, I could deal with my feelings on this.  Get up, shake it off, try to look at my work with a more critical eye, and focus on how much I have benefited from this experience.  Give me a few days and a heavy dose of Toblerone.  A week, at the most,  I’ll move on and bounce back as a better writer.

But. . .

With me, there’s always a “But”, and this is the part that’s probably going to get me in trouble.  It’s going to make me sound like I’ve got a bad case of Sour Grapes.

Writers were told from the outset that we would be expected to submit a completed manuscript if we made the Top 50,  Some were not prepared and spent those weeks scrambling to get it finished just in case.   I was still doing some major edits at that point myself.  After getting the Magic Email, some of those authors took to Twitter about the difficulties of finishing their work in time.

Mild annoyance began to kick in.  But hold on; it gets better

When the second round of contacts went out to replace the ones who dropped out, there were writers who bombarded us with constant updates. 30K words to go in two days!  Eeek!   And   No sleep, living on caffeine, gotta create another 20K by morning.

You know how that comes across to those of us who didn’t make it?  I am such a good writer that my rush-ass, slap-together, hurried writing is still better than your completed, polished, and prepared manuscript.

This is all a joke to me, and I still beat you.

I am sure these ladies don’t really feel that way.  I know they are all as thrilled and excited as I would be in their place.  But constantly whining about the difficulties of meeting this deadline is hurtful to those of us who never got the chance.  It’s like rubbing salt in our wounds.

It’s like the woman I know who lost over 100 pounds through weight loss surgery and now spends her every waking moment complaining to fat people about how hard life is now that she;s so skinny.  Wah, I’m cold because I have no body fat.  Boo-hoo, it hurts to get shots in my butt now because I have no body fat.

Honey, I think but don’t say, you still have plenty of body fat. It’s all between your ears.  Now eat a damn cheeseburger and quit your bitching.

Just like I’d like to announce to those sytycw finalists who can’t stop complaining:  if it’s such a hardship for you to finish your manuscript, then step down and make room for someone who who will appreciate it.

There are plenty of writers who would give anything to have the opportunity to submit a full manuscript for the next level of competition, but we weren’t good enough.  So forgive me if I sound like a Poor Sport, but I am sick and tired of hearing all of the whining about how difficult it is to handle being giving the chance that I didn’t get.

I’m supposed to feel sorry for someone who is unhappy about beating me?

No, I just don’t have that in me.  If that makes me a bad person, then so be it.  I’m a bad person.    But I just can’t dig down deep enough to find one ounce of sympathy for anyone who has the chutzpah to complain about how hard it is to win.

Suck it up, Buttercup.

Hello? Universe Calling

It’s a good thing I don’t believe in omens.

All week long, I have come face-to-face with events that could easily be interpreted as bad omens.  Events that really seemed like the universe was trying to say, “Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?  Really, really sure?  C’mon, now, just think about it.”

It started on Sunday, which was the deadline for this year’s Launching a Star contest.  I’ve entered two years in a row; I bombed the first year, but placed third in my category the next year.  So, I asked myself, why not enter one more time?  Third time’s the charm, right?  I went against the very good advice I got from some very smart people, and I drafted the first chapter of a second novel even though my first is far, far behind schedule.

Sunday morning, I woke up bright and early, fired up the old computer, and sent in my entry.

Well, that was the plan.  Unfortunately, my computer had other plans.   My computer has decided that it will no longer allow me to attach anything to an email.  Big documents, small documents, PDF files, pictures, nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.  Not in Yahoo, not in Gmail, not in Windows Live.  Not from the computer memory, not from a flash drive, not in a box or with a fox, Sam I am.

I should explain here that my computer skills are all but nonexistent.  I have never taken a computer class in my life.  Everything I know, I have either taught myself or learned from my husband.

I should also explain that my husband is one of the smartest people I have ever met.  He likes to fool people with the flannel shirts and “aw, shucks” attitude, but he is an almost frighteningly intelligent individual. He is also, unfortunately, one of the most impatient teachers ever.  Every one of our computer “lessons” ends with him angry, me crying, and both of us resigned to no sex for a while.

So, going to the Big Guy at this point was probably not the best choice I have ever made.  I asked to borrow his laptop for ten minutes so I could plug in my flash drive and send in my contest entry.

He spent a big chunk of the rest of the day trying to fix my computer.

I did not ask him to do that.  Remember, I just asked if I could use his laptop.

While he fussed and messed around with my computer, I quietly asked my son if I could use his Netbook, which was assigned to him by his school.  “But Mom,” he said, “I had to promise not to let anyone else use it.  You wouldn’t want me to break the rules, would you?”

Now he worries about rules?  After fifteen years of being rather laissez-faire on the concept of rules, now the boy gives a damn?

By this point, the Big Guy was ready to really amp up his efforts.  He chewed me out for having so many emails in my account, for not having updated virus protection, for not knowing a password for the Windows Live mail program that has never worked, for having a virus in my computer. . . I’m not sure, but I think I remember him blaming me for his bad gas, too.  I’ll take the blame on that one, though.  I made cabbage for supper that night.

Maybe, I thought, the universe is telling me not to enter the Launching a Star contest this year.  I should finish my manuscript for Her House Divided before starting another novel.  But then the Big Guy finally let me use his laptop at the last possible moment, and my entry was soon on its merry way.

And then I got the email a few days later from the contest director that my category didn’t receive enough entries.  Would I like to withdraw, she wondered, or would I like to have my entry moved to a different category?

I moved it from Series Contemporary to Single Title against my better judgment.

In the meantime, I am also taking part in Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write contest with Her House Divided.  This week has been the online conference for the event, and I have spent hours listening to podcasts and participating in live Twitter chats about everything from revising to networking.  It has been fascinating and oh-so-inspiring.  A little intimidating too, but that’s a subject for another day.

I decided to enter the First Page Challenge on Wednesday. This involved submitting the first 250 words of my novel by 6:00 p.m.  In an email attachment.

No problem.  I loaded my first page onto my trusty flash drive, hopped into our gas-guzzling Expedition, and burned through a ridiculous amount of gas to drive the paltry seven miles to our local library to use one of their computers.  I was the model of efficiency as I typed up my cover letter, easily attached my document, and hit send.

Only to get the message that I was sending it to an invalid address.

Oh, Universe?  Are you trying to tell me something?

I learned that if you cry at one of the computers at Bloomingdale Public Library, you get two helpful librarians looking over your shoulder.

They were very sweet and knowledgeable, and they agreed that the situation was indeed very odd.  I sent a Tweet to the contest organizers that I was having trouble with their email address, and the librarians gave me an extra thirty minutes of computer time to sit and wait for an answer.

As I contemplated giving up writing entirely and trying to find a way to make a living by stringing beads, a very kind library patron approached me.  “I’m pretty good with computers,” she told me.  “Would it be all right with you if I tried to help?”

Tap, tap, click and vroom and my submission for the First Page Challenge was sent.  Gone.  Done.

Here’s where it gets odd.

Her House Divided centers around two young people who meet and fall in love because of the efforts of a sweet but manipulative old lady.  I started writing it shortly after my accident, as part of my healing process.  But in the two long years that have gone by since then, I have changed and grown in ways I couldn’t have predicted.  I am not the same person I was when I started the project, and I have struggled lately over whether I should keep pushing on with it, or if the time has come to abandon it and move on.

The old lady’s name is Bea, named after one of my all-time favorite clients.  The real-life Bea was a tough-as-nails, brittle old bird who knew about my dreams of being a writer.  She scolded me at every visit and demanded to know when I was going to give up doing hair so I could sit down and write my book.  She believed in me more than I believed in me.

Fast-forward a few years to the Computer Goddess who rescued me at the library on Wednesday.  When she had finished, I asked her for her name.

Bea.

Okay, Universe, I get it. It’s not the right time to start a second novel. I should have listened to you; I shouldn’t have wasted my time sending something new to Launching a Star this year when so many obstacles kept presenting themselves.   I’m going to finish Her House Divided.

It’s a good thing I believe in omens.