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Will My Sorrow Count?

December 16, 2011

I lost two friends to suicide in the same week, 32 years after I lost my dad the same way. The first was a beloved coworker who lit up any room just by buzzing through, the second was my best friend from childhood, Tracy. She was fearless, imaginative, accepting, and showered her love on every living thing around her. But when my dad died all those years ago, I lost Tracy too, the circumstances of his death too painful for me to return to the strip of houses on Scherer Road where she lived near Dad, surrounded in front and back with open space. Time passed and Tracy’s family moved, and I spent years wondering and worrying what happened to her. Then came Facebook. After 30 years, I got to see Tracy again. I got to hug her and tell how much I loved her–finally. When you’re 12, you just don’t say those things to your best friend.

At her memorial service earlier this week, I learned something new. Or remembered something I’d forgotten. Tracy wanted to be writer. There is not a speck of doubt in my mind that she had the passion and talent to do it, but what she didn’t have was time. From what I gathered from the outpouring of love her family and friends shared with those of us who mourned her loss, she spent her short time here making sure her kids and grandkids  knew how much she loved them. When her big brother spoke, the first thing he mentioned was where Tracy grew up. Where Tracy and I grew up together. Longview Farm, an abandoned turn-of-the-century horse racing track, complete with barn, stables, mansion, workmen’s quarters, and that ritzy hotel  that is now underwater, a place where we could disappear and let our imaginations entertain us until our empty bellies finally drove us home. I learned that her love of exploration never left her, as it has never left me. It’s a gift our shared childhoods gave us both.

I tried to write this blog post a week ago, a couple days after she died. I’ve had bouts of depression throughout my life and turned to God a couple years ago to make sense of that undercurrent of sadness that just never goes all the way away. A friend told me that God never wastes a sorrow, and I’ve used that belief to make sense of so many things that I never understood before, but the sorrow I felt at my own father’s passing? I wished it had somehow saved my friends. I wanted tally marks for the number of lives that had directly benefited. It didn’t work that way, but I know God’s using my sorrow, and that of all those who loved my friends, in other ways. It’s impossible for me to accept that anything other than beauty will rise from these losses.

So this blog, instead of focusing on the sadness, is now about memories. I’m sharing something that I one day wanted to share with Tracy in book form.  It’s a section of the first novel I ever wrote, one that in many ways,  celebrated my childhood with Tracy and her brothers and sisters. Turns out she made her dream of  becoming a writer come true long before me…the photo above is her, as I remember her, spilling her love onto everything else before herself. She’s posing for her first published piece in The Kansas City Star, written when she was 10.

The excerpt below, from my unpublished novel, takes place at Longview Farm, that wonderland where Tracy and I felt no limits, a place we never dreamed time would touch. Maybe one day it’ll be a book after all, because my memories belong to Tracy too.


Out of the barn. Into the chill. Surrounded by towering oaks that warned us with their howling to turn back. Turn back now…

I’d followed Tracy like a slasher movie bimbo investigating a noise in the basement.

I smelled winter. A week after spring had come and it suddenly smelled like winter. Maybe it was the closed-up must in the barn, but down here in this little valley of existence that thrived a century ago, all the pushing and prodding of new growth was nonexistent. So many people had forgotten this place, and spring was ignoring it too.

Tracy rounded the corner of the barn and ducked under a splintered gate. The wind swirled her hair. I ran in a crouch behind her. She gestured to the old hotel and pressed her finger over her lips.

Like I could speak even if I wanted to.

“It’s in there,” she whispered through the wind.

She hunkered down, gave me a thumbs up and made a mad dash for a fallen tree at the end of the brick drive. She motioned me over. Who were we? Batman and Robin on the chase? I lunged for the nearest fence post and stalled. My heart was a time bomb.

I craned my neck to look up at that ancient two-story inn. It was a perfect habitat for cultured ghosts with sophisticated means of torment. Wrought-iron railings flecked with splinters of paint framed the balconies. Streaks of rust bled down the walls from flowerpots bracketed to chipped stucco. And a garden patio off to the side where Tracy was hiding behind that dead—

Where’d she go?

My trachea went postal. I gasped. The wind slapped my hair around.

I scanned the front of the hotel. Holy crap! She was right up there on the freaking porch. Ducked under a window. Getting all cozy with Casper.

Tattered screens flailed. Curtain remnants darted through broken panes. I didn’t want to be alone.

Tracy. Yes, Tracy. She’d rescued me at school, two times. Good things come in threes. I bolted past the fallen tree doing my best TV cop sprint when I heard it—

Organ music.

Creepy, foreboding, church balcony organ music. A prelude to the ghost’s arrival. I didn’t wait to hear the clanking chains or the maniacal laughter.

The path of my sprint instantaneously arced away from the hotel. Away from Tracy. Away from Elmwood Farm. My arms pumped like a thoroughbred’s legs. Head for the hill, my brain commanded. I ran past the cows and never once looked back.

I could only hope Tracy made it out of there. Hard to tell when you’re running like the very flames of hell are reaching out to char your legs into crusty chunks of human jerky.

I leaned panting against the fence we’d first climbed. The old wood creaked under my weight.

My house. My humble sky blue house with wind chimes and rainbow whirligigs. Home sweet home.


Rest in peace, friends. And dear Tracy, learning that you spent your final years as a hospice nurse doesn’t surprise me a bit. Always taking care of others. But you’re home now, and you can finally relax in the arms of God. Thank you for the years we shared.

If you are thinking of hurting or killing yourself PLEASE call 1-800-SUICIDE.


OMG! Sample Pages in a Query? The Nerve!

April 20, 2011

courtesy of

So you’ve been polishing your manuscript for four score and seven years and are now ready to submit a query, but the guidelines say “Query Only.”  Should you include sample pages? Doesn’t that mean I’d be ignoring the guidelines? Won’t I be blacklisted from querying FOREVER? You speak nonsense, Manivong, and you’re trying to kill my dream of being published!

Hey, dreamer. Yeah, you. Come ‘ere. Closer, still. Good. Now let me smack some sense into you. It won’t hurt, I promise.

Unless the guidelines specifically say DO NOT SEND SAMPLE PAGES, then send the flippin’ sample pages, for the love of  angst! Who am I to advise this? A measly writer? A girl with one published novel in the market? A bruiser set on dispensing bad advice? You decide. But if it makes you feel better, I’ve heard numerous agents say this very thing.

You know what else I’ve heard? That readers, whether they be agents and editors themselves, or assistants and interns, will sometimes (maybe even often but certainly not always and possibly for some…never) read the sample pages first! If they likey, then they may read the query to find out more about you and your background. This is one reason why you’ll hear that THE WRITING MATTERS MOST, not that you got a blue ribbon for the softball throw in sixth grade, which makes you qualified to write The Complete History of Plastic Baseball Bats.

What constitutes a sample? Five pages. Even six if your chapter ends there. What’s the worst that could happen? An assistant reads your brilliant sample, passes it to her brilliant boss who cradles the pages like a swaddled newborn. Brilliant Boss passes it to her supervisor who declares, “Holy batman! Who needs vampires anymore when we have plastic bats?” Brilliant Supervisor passes your pages onto Dream Publisher Dudette, who is so taken by your brilliant prose that she begs for a tissue. But then, DPD inquires how these sample pages came to be. Assistant is beckoned to the big corner office. The door is closed. The sweating begins. And the question is uttered. “Am I to understand,” Dream Publisher Dudette whispers, “that you read these sample pages when our guidelines clearly state to Query Only?” Assistant nods, sheepishly and with great trepidation. DPD swipes the Donald Trumpish lock of hair away from her face and declares, “You’re fired.”

So think of “Query Only” as really meaning do not submit your entire manuscript, and don’t you dare even think of sending us a honking three chapters. Just the sample. The wee sample.

Now how do you include this wee 5-page writing sample, which btw, is always the first five pages, not some random bit from chapter 36 when the action starts heating up? What did you say? As an attachment? Hey, dreamer. Yeah, you. Come ‘ere. Closer, still. Good. Now let me smack some sense into you. It might hurt a little. Maybe even a lot!

Include the sample in the body of the e-mail, for the love of common sense, never as an attachment, because OMG, the nerve!

Here is the book I sold to HarperCollins after querying agents:

Escaping The Tiger on Amazon for $3.99

(Please spread the news by hitting a pretty little share button below.)

I Gave 5 Stars to a Book I Never Read

March 28, 2011

Bullying. It’s in the headlines a lot lately. And most of us watch in horror as the evidence (cellphone videos, FB comments, etc) makes its way onto the internet. “What’s wrong with those savages?” “How could people stand by and watch?” “This world’s going to hell!” So what has prompted this blog post? If you’re an author, you’ve probably already heard that you shouldn’t comment negatively to someone who writes a bad review of your book. But one such author did exactly that, even going so far as to tell the reviewer to F*CK Off!

Did the author make a mistake? Yes, I think so. Did she hear about it? Yes, to the tune of 300 plus comments and counting on the original review by a blogger. Did a fair number of people rush to Amazon to teach her a lesson by posting 1-star reviews, some even comparing her to a “mentally retarded monkey?” Yes. Did I give the book 5 stars without reading it? Yes.

Do I care? No.

People manipulate those silly ratings all the time. Authors rate their own books under fake names. There is readily available info on methods to make your Amazon ranking soar. It’s all silly. Am I getting slammed for “faking” a rating? Pretty much, based on the voting mechanism that allows people to voice whether they believe a review is helpful or not. Someone even reported me for abuse. But it got people to read what I had to say. And what I had to say on my amazon review was this (I’m posting it below because Amazon may decide to delete my review):

This Is Bullying. Stop it. So an author had a temper tantrum in the worst place possible…the internet. And her rant has gone viral. Yes, she was unprofessional and certainly got an ear full in the comments of the original review that so upset her. I imagine she is now 10 times as distraught as she was upon reading the AL review in the first place. But to have everyone rush over here and post 1-star reviews is bullying. We all make mistakes. Have some humanity, reviewers, and back off now. Please. Want to criticize me for giving 5-stars to a book I’ve never read? I can take it, but I bet this author’s had enough. I just wanted to get your attention and make my appeal. Thanks for reading.

So there you have it. I lied. Abused the system. As one disgruntled commenter of my review put it, I was “generating a new class of problems.” But somewhere out in the real world, away from the keyboard and the anonymous commenters, Jacqueline Howett is a human, a woman who had a dream and probably tried for years to make it happen. And when she defended that dream in what most of us would consider a very unprofessional manner, she made a mockery of herself. A mistake. A big one. Is there any among us who haven’t done the same and wished we could make it all go away?


Update: Amazon did indeed remove my review. Plenty of 1-starred reviews that admit to not reading past the description remain. Conclusion: Mean People Suck.

Updated Again: I added a 2nd 5-star review, copied below, the purpose of which was lost on too many people. Here’s what I wrote. Now I’m done with it…

What if…just what if…

I’ve read the sample pages on the author’s blog and agree THE GREEK SEAMAN is wrought with grammar and syntax errors. I agree the author reacted in a heinous way to the blogger who posted the 2-star review. But what if the author, by ranting about the review, was really conducting an experiment on human nature. Liken it to the supermodel who dresses in a fat suit to see how people ridicule her. Or the Caucasian dressing as a minority to experience bigotry. Just how cruel can people be? How many names can be hurled? How many people will resort to mob mentality and go after her because she made a public mistake and needs to be taught a lesson by whom? Those of us who have NEVER made an egregious error in judgment? How many sophomoric jokes about her title can come from those with the least imagination? How many people are laughing and cheering from the stands as this woman is publicly lynched? What if you were unwittingly part of this grand experiment? Now, how fast can you mark this review as unhelpful?

(Edited to add: this is an exercise in self reflection, not a real theory. Where do YOU fit in? Hope that helps.)

Blessings in an Unstable World

March 14, 2011

My blessings on any given day of the week…

Family, house, job, health, friends, car, dog, means, trees, creativity, ability to reason, humility, snow, rain, sleet, snow, of course God, moderately clean air and water, shoes, trash pickup, every phase of the moon, loud movies, chocolate, laughter, seeing past sorrow, and the knowledge that it can all be gone in a blink…except Christ.

Blessings to Japan.

Developing star, viewed w/ Coronograph (NASA pic)

I Banned My Own Book

February 20, 2011

(Originally posted at Page Turner’s Blog on 10-22-10)

(E-book released August 2014 with new cover)

ARCs from HarperCollins!

New Cover for E-book Release, August 2014

New Cover for E-book Release, August 2014











When I received the advance reader’s copy of my novel, Escaping The Tiger, I told my daughter she couldn’t read it—yet. Perhaps in a year or so. She was only 8 ½  and I wasn’t sure she could appreciate or process the gritty realities my characters face, realities that are based, in part, on her father’s childhood escape from Communist Laos. But she sneaked the arc and read it anyway.

Of course she did. It was forbidden fruit.

I caught her about three chapters in and decided if she was willing to read it, I’d be there to guide her. We talked on the way home from school one day. I asked her how the book was going.

“Fine,” she said.

“Is it scaring you at all?”


“Well, do you have any questions?”


I’d have to do better than that. Asking yes-or-no questions is no way to start a conversation. “Daughter, do you know why the Communist soldiers burned Vonlai’s favorite book, the one about American skyscrapers?”

“No,” she said.

My fault. I asked another yes-or-no question. So I went into lecture mode. “Daughter, they didn’t want Vonlai forming his own thoughts about America. They wanted him to think just like they did, without learning anything for himself. That’s how people try to control other people, is to limit the information they get.”

And she was quiet. I checked my rearview mirror. She was staring out the window. Nice one, Mom, I thought. You’re babbling about censorship and your kid probably wants to go get an ice cream or something.

“But Mom,” she said, still watching the trees flash by as we drove home. “Vonlai’s dad told him they can’t burn what’s in your mind.”

The heavens parted. The angels sang. And God sent me his smile right through my sunroof, dressed as a golden ray of sunshine. She got it, I thought. My baby girl, who I thought wasn’t mature enough to appreciate the themes in my novel, got the most important part.

Of course she did. She’s the one who sought out the very book I’d banned.

One woman’s rape is another man’s soft porn…

September 19, 2010

So just in time for banned books week, an associate professor at my college alma mater, Missouri State University, wrote an opinion piece in Springfield’s NEWS LEADER suggesting that the rape scenes in Laurie Halse Anderson’s young adult novel, SPEAK, equate to soft pornography. He wants Republic, MO school district parents to get involved with what their children are supposed to read in school. Hey, Wesley Scroggins, great idea! But how about we don’t send a message to girls who HAVE been raped that they should shut up about it and don’t tell a soul? That’s what removing the book would do.

Novels that tackle tough issues show slices of life, Mr. Scroggins, so that readers can experience the harshness (that will bombard them when they step outside your bubble), from the safety of a book. Readers can witness other people struggle with life, make mistakes, demonstrate bravery, etc. etc. etc., all so that they can either learn from others’ choices or be inspired by their actions. And most importantly, they can form their OWN opinions without YOU deciding what they should and shouldn’t read.

If you’d like to SPEAK up and let the Republic, MO school district know your thoughts, just as Mr. Scroggins has done, please visit Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog for all the particulars.

When you gonna write a book for adults?

September 9, 2010


If you write literature for children, tweens and teens, and you talk about it out loud, then you’ve likely had someone ask you when you’re going to write a book for adults, as if it’s some kind of graduation into a respectable vocation, a step up from the training bra into a full-fledged over-the-shoulder boulder holder–with underwire. No more Big Chief tablets, fat pencils, training wheels, but a real, live, bonafide piece of literature for those of legal age.

So how do I answer that question? You mean after I stick out my tongue? “Nevah!”I say, with my thumb on the tip of my nose, fingers wagging.

Would such an inquirer ever ask a pediatrician why he’s not doctoring for grown-ups? Would he tell an elementary teacher to get a real job and educate only the college crowd? Would he suggest to a CASA volunteer that real court advocates only work with people old enough to vote?

Well-meaning people: please hear this. We write for kids because kids matter. Kids are relevant. Kids are curious and honest recipients, often times at critical crossroads in deciding who they want to be as grown-ups, often searching for a safe place to explore the complexities of life. Complexities that bombard them every time they leave the safety of home. Or maybe their home isn’t safe at all, and they turn to books to discover they are not alone, to see a flicker of hope that their lives can someday be different. Or maybe they just want a good old fashioned joyride of a story. Kind of like playing with toys.

And these future adults, aka kids, are savvy, enthusiastic readers, open to new ideas and willing to explore the breadth of human emotions experienced by characters between the covers of a book. Books which serve as safety nets or shields, allowing inquiring minds a peek into the hardships of life, while still showing them how choices and reactions of a character in a book can build a person up or tear them down. It’s like touching a hot stove. Once you’re witness to that, you might think twice about doing it again. That’s why some of us write about drug abuse, date-rape, degenerates, mean people, sad people, confused people, struggling people, deadbeats, and bullies. Kids need a place to stand at a safe distance so they can relate, apply, react, respond, learn empathy, feel connected, get pissed and get empowered. As Katherine Paterson, author of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA once said, “books give us emotional practice.”

Yes, fireworks are dangerous, but if we stand at a safe distance, there’s a whole lot of beauty to behold.

Escaping The Tiger Book Trailer
Escaping The Tiger Teacher’s Guide

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