A World of Stories

A friend of mine read Who She Was: A Sylvia Wilcox Mystery, and asked, “Where did you get the story?” I thought that was an odd question. From my mind, of course. Every day I see dozen of storylines springing from everyday events. For example, when I see a neighbor taking out the trash, casually wheeling their garbage can to the curb, I think, “What if they see something out of the corner of their eye? A faint, fast-moving flash of….something?” From there, the story can go in a million different ways, and based on how far the narrative goes, I may, or may not have a plot for a novel or short story.

My work in progress, Displacement, is a story that grew out of a single paragraph on the local news website. It was a story that most people probably skipped over. I read that one paragraph and thought, “What if…” And the “what ifs” spurred a narrative that I started jotting down in 2009. Now, in 2019, I have returned to that story to flesh it out. There are times when I get stuck, and my fingers cease to move across the keyboard, but when that happens, I need only to close my eyes and turn my mind to another dream world.

Creating stories is what I’ve always done. Even when I wasn’t writing down my tall tales, my days were always filled with fantasies and stories spun out of everyday occurrences. Wrapping myself in stories has helped me maintain a sense of wonder and the idea that everything is possible. When the ills of the world intrude with angry atrocities, I slip into my fantasy land.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t keep up with what is happening in the news. There are plenty of issues that need my prayers and action to help circumvent. I am still fully present in the quest to make the world a better place, but one can only take so much negativity. There is a time and place for escape. Luckily, I am an author, so I get to leave the strife of the world behind on a regular basis.

How do you use stories in your life? Do you allow your imagination to run wild? Don’t underestimate the power of a story. They can change your life.

The Power of Positivity

Currently, I am working on updating a book I published in 2014. The title (which will be changed soon) was How Changing My Thoughts Changed My Life. Yes, it is a cumbersome title, and now that I have more insight, and my life has truly gone where I wanted it to go, I am ready to polish that book and re-release. Back in 2014, I was living in West Jordan, Utah, and life was good. I thought it was time to tell the story of how I used the power of positive thinking to change my life. I wasn’t ready to write that book. Why? Well, my life was about to take a turn, and the negative mindset was just around the corner.

In 2010 I bought a one-way train ticket, took my last $60 and headed to Salt Lake City, Utah. The plan was to spend a few weeks with my good friend that lived there and head to New Mexico and Colorado. I had taken a leave of absence from my job as a prep cook, and I had three weeks of vacation pay coming my way. At the time, I was sick of struggling in Michigan, and I wanted a new place to live. I also was planning on going through my literary fiction novel and publishing it. In 2010, the indie publishing world was starting to blossom, but I didn’t have useful information on the process, and it seemed daunting. So, I ended up putting my writing dreams on the back burner, settling down in Salt Lake City, and I looking for a “real” job.

I went to graduate school because the economy was not in good shape in Michigan when I graduated in 2001. The only job offer I received was in Massachusetts at a school that paid $20,000. It was a prestigious school, but living on $20,000 in Massachusetts was not logical, so I didn’t take the job. Instead, I stayed in Michigan for nine years without being offered a decent job. During that time, I went to graduate school, something I would not recommend for anyone who would like to become a writer, but I wasted time trying to find a way to live my dream, and have a “real” job.

Here’s what I’ve learned about graduate school and “real” jobs. You don’t need either. Graduate school is a place where writers are urged to write literary fiction or literary non-fiction. For the most part, no one is pulling out a character sketch, outline, or genre fiction roadmaps. Instead, students are taught to write in a way that the majority of the world does not care to read. What does this do for you? Not much. You may be published in some academic journals, and your literary fiction may be picked up by a traditional publisher, but this is not the most common path to becoming a successful writer. What is the most common path? Sitting down and writing until you finish a novel. After that, repeat the process and you are on your way to a writing career. I wasted years sitting in classrooms analyzing writers and their work, when I should have been living life and embracing the fact that most people are just looking for a good story. They aren’t looking for an obscure piece of writing that leaves them questioning the meaning of life. Most people want a good story, so focus on telling a story and not writing the next literary fiction smash hit, which will probably only sell about 1,000 copies.

I thought I had learned all of this and incorporated it into my life, until I wrote How Changing My Thoughts, Changed my Life. First of all, it’s barely 25,000 words. Secondly, I couldn’t quite get my point across because as happy as I was, I still wasn’t truly living what I was preaching. Writing has always been my passion and no matter what other paths I’ve pursued, my goal of being a full-time author was the huge elephant in the room.

In  2014 I had just taken on what I considered my dream job. I had been working at a wonderful treatment center as an assistant in the Education department. In April of 2014, I was offered a full-time teaching position. I was elated and thought, “I’ve made it!” But in the back of my mind, the dream of writing was still there. Even so, I told myself that this was the best-case scenario. I loved the place where I was working, and that job would turn out to be the best experience I had in the Education realm, but in reality, it was a barrier. I wanted to be a writer. Regardless of how happy I was to score a full-time teaching position finally, and even though I loved where I was working, the truth was undeniable. In my heart of heart, I wanted to be a writer.

When the Utah State Board of Education began telling me that I was not qualified to keep the job I loved, I thought there’d been a mistake. Unfortunately, they never relented, and four months after I accepted the job I loved, and two months after I published How Changing My Thoughts, Changed My Life, I ended up being forced out of my job by the state regulators. I ended up taking a $10,000 pay cut, and my workdays went from 7 hours to 12. This change in my life truly changed my thoughts.

Life began to deteriorate in several areas, and I found myself slipping back into a negative mindset. A negative mindset can be all-consuming, and since so many people live in negativity, it’s easy to get stuck in that way of thinking. It was not until I started to tend to my spiritual life things started to around. Once again, I was forming a positive frame of mind. As I moved back into a positive mindset, great things started to happen. For example, shortly after my fortieth birthday, I decided that marriage wasn’t everything, and it wasn’t on the agenda for my life. So, instead of looking for someone to date, I would try to meet men who wanted to be friends. I was just looking for men to hang out with, purely platonic friends, and I met one guy. We’ve now been married for just shy of two years.

There is also an example of how changing my thoughts changed my writing life. In December 2018, as I was mourning the loss of my daughter, I decided that life had to change. It could never be the same again after the loss of my Lillie. Everything would be different, and that something was quitting my teaching job and publishing the first book in my detective series. Instead of letting the tragedy destroy my world, I decided that I would allow it to push me toward my dream.

It seems that once I decided that I was going to write and be a successful author, things began to fall into place. All I had to do was let go of the negative and decide that whatever my goal was, it would be achieved. It is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again, but now that I have applied it to the one constant passion I’ve previously ignored in my life, I think I’ve learned the lesson. Now, I can pull out that old manuscript and do it justice! Change your thoughts, and you will change your life!

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Visiting Lincoln’s Tomb

I hear a great deal about people visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., but I don’t hear a lot about visits to Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois. During our trip to Peoria, we decided to make a pitstop in Springfield. Lincoln is a fascinating figure who helped define the country we live in today. In my life, he is a complicated figure. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which he may have done to bring the country back together, or perhaps he was moved by God. Whatever the case, the man did what he did, and that changed the lives of some of my ancestors. My relatives that ran the Watson plantation in Georgia would have been affected. The other side of the family would have been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. So, like America itself, my history is complicated, making Lincoln a proper figure to visit on my cross country trip.

History is something that we rewrite regularly. Our relatives are memorialized as heroes after death, regardless of how ordinary they may have been. Suddenly, imperfect men and women become gods and goddesses. I don’t view any of my relatives, or figures in history that way. Life is complicated, and we are born into a set time and place, and we can’t say what we would have done, or would not have done if born in a different time. I am very comfortable with the idea that we are flawed, fickle individuals that may be sure of what we believe one day, and completely uncertain the next. It is okay to be this way, for it is what we were born to be. Thinking, feeling people who change our minds when we gather more data. You don’t have to apologize for what your forefathers did or believed, but recognize the past for what it is. Don’t make excuses, or pretend that what occurred was righteous.

Springfield is a mid-size city about an hour away from Peoria. Lincoln’s tomb is in an unassuming, but grand cemetery in the middle of the town. We arrived at the tomb on a cool, cloudy day. The first stop was to make a wish and rub Honest Abe’s nose. The nose is worn from the decades of hands that have come through, whispered their wishes to Abe, and rubbed his nose. After that, we headed for the tomb itself.IMG_1901

Inside the tomb, people milled around, quiet and solemn. Bradley and I made our way through the hall, stopping by each statue and plaque to read the captions. It is interesting visiting the tomb with Bradley. At some point in history, our marriage would have been illegal and the faith my husband was born into, once thought that black people were less than human, and his marriage to me would have made him eligible for “blood atonement.” Brigham Young thought it was better to slit a person’s throat than to let them marry and procreate with someone with African heritage. So, being there with my husband, a man who is the closest I’ve ever found to a kindred was interesting. We stood in front of Lincoln’s tomb, silent and in awe that we were in front of the final resting places of Lincoln, his wife, and all but one of his children. A complicated man, yes, but aren’t we all complicated? Isn’t our country this wonderful and terrible place all at once? Aren’t we all beautiful and tragic, depending on which one of our breaths you catch.

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10 Reasons Why I Quit Teaching

Today is the second day of the school year for my old comrades at the charter school I worked at last year. My final day was in January of this year, and while it took me a few months to decompress and start to feel like an ex-teacher, I genuinely love the fact that I did not have to go back to school this year.

It was hard to quit because I LOVE to teach and my students (for the most part), were precious and amazing. Even so, I could no longer justify being a teacher. Why? Okay, let me try to put it in non-teacher terms. Imagine that you had a significant other, and that person was always doing the following:

demanding all of your time

not recognizing that good mental health requires some space

taking your money

accusing you of never being good enough

placing extremely high expectations on you while expecting you to have extremely low expectations for them.

If you were dating someone like that, it would be a good idea to dump that person. Well, that’s what teaching was like for me, and now that I am living in the post-teacher world, I realize that it was never worth it. I was silly to stick around for six years! What was wrong with me!

Here are my top ten reasons why I am so happy I ended my teaching career.

1. Fighting With The Utah State Board of Education

I had to fight with the Utah State Board of Education to get a teaching license. My master’s degree in English, ten years of experience as a tutor, and four years as a substitute teacher wasn’t good enough for the Utah State Board of Education. For years, I let my passion for teaching push me to fight for my license. Looking back, I wonder what the heck inspired me to fight tooth and nail to make less than $30,000?! What was I thinking! Never again!

Utah is not alone in their constant cry for teachers. Other states have the same conundrum-they want teachers, there are a number of programs for people to obtain teaching licenses, but they want to make sure you jump through as many hoops as possible before you get the license. Keep in mind that a license in teaching is not going provide a sustainable career for most. The states that pay teachers a decent wage are slim. So why jump through all those hoops?

2. Teaching Demanded Year Round Work For Part-Time Pay

Everyone believes that teachers have the summers off. Well, the schools I worked at did not get the memo. Last summer, I sat in a classroom during summer vacation, discussing curriculum. It was the usual story. We needed a new curriculum ASAP, but the administration wasn’t interested in buying materials. That meant we were required to create this new curriculum. We would talk, create all the lessons and a curriculum map, and submit it before August. I taught at charter schools, so this was something that happened every year. Every summer we threw the curriculum we created the previous year out the window and started from scratch. If you haven’t planned an entire school year of curriculum, trust me on the fact that it takes months. So, that is what I spent every summer doing-in-between working my other job. And that brings me to the next point.

3. A Second Job Was a Must

I had a second job during my teaching career, and not just in the summer. I had ONE teaching position that paid well, but it was at a treatment center and the Utah State Board of Education decided that my temporary license made me ineligible for the job, so I had to leave that position. That’s just a very bitter side note that could probably fit under any of these headings, but I’ll leave it at that.

After leaving the job I loved, I moved in public charter schools in Utah, which meant taking a $10,000 pay cut. This pay cut required me to downsize my life, which included moving into a slummy apartment that was infested with mice. As the price of rent rose throughout the Salt Lake Valley, the pay from my full-time teaching job was able to pay for rent and utilities, but the second job paid for groceries and all my other bills. And no, I did not have the spoils like cable, super-fast Internet, or a fancy car.

There was one year that I made $38,000, and it was great, but the school would later inform me that my pay had been a mistake. They meant to pay me $19,000, but accounting isn’t a strong point for charter schools. That’s a long story, but other than that year, and the job I loved but was only able to work for three months, I made less than $30,000. So, I always worked a second job during my teaching career. Not only did I not have summers off, but I also worked a second job throughout the year.

4. More Demands Each Year

The first day of the school year for teachers is the day when the new expectations are put on the table. You head back to work two weeks before the students arrive, and you listen to how everything that you did last year was wrong, and how everything is going to be different this year. Everything. You might have to run after-school clubs, work more lunch detail, teach extra classes that you won’t be paid for, etc., etc.

Increased demands arrive on the fly throughout the school year. You will need to be adjust your schedule accordingly. The school must come first and if that means you can’t make it to family functions, or maintain decent mental health-so be it. Teachers are expected to build their lives around the school calendar.

5. Negative Vibes

Teacher angst is legendary. While you’re rushing to eat your lunch, make copies, and use the bathroom during your 30 minutes lunch break, you’re privy to all the angry teachers in the faculty lounge. Teachers are stressed and upset, but they can’t be that way in the classroom, or they’ll get complaints. So, during those brief breaks, you either lock yourself in your classroom, or you head to the faculty lounge. If you do the latter, expect to be doused in negativity. The fury of the teacher faculty lounge will wilt your spirit.

6. Teaching Careers Are Short Lived

Low pay makes teaching a career that is easy to get into and easy to leave. You meet a few different types of people in the teacher world-young bright-eyed recent graduates who are going to change the world, and older, starry-eyed older, second career seekers, who are also all set to change the world. Expect your neighbors to change frequently. Each summer, the administration will be looking for new teachers to fill the holes.

Another reason teaching careers are easy to leave, is because you can easily find a job with less stress and slightly lower pay. For example, my last teaching position paid a little more than what the average Starbucks barista makes, but the barista doesn’t have to take home 4-5 hours of work.

7. Teaching Philosophies Change Frequently

This year we’re focusing on STEM! Last year it was reading! The year after that-physical education! Ra! Ra! Ra! This is the next shiny object that is going to rocket test scores to the moon! Let’s do it!

Every couple of years, the guiding philosophy behind education in the United States changes. There will be articles about miracles at schools that implemented the new ideas, and old ideas will be labeled something new. The shiny new object will be the answer to all the problems in your school, and things will only improve after you assimilate into the new teaching philosophy.

8. Your Family Will Suffer

If I ever want to strike pure fear in my husband’s heart, all I have to do is say that I’m considering a teaching position. His eyes get wide, and he becomes anxious. He volunteers to work overtime at his job, and he asks what he can do to make sure I never return to teaching. When I told him that I was considering signing up to be a substitute teacher, he was petrified. He was so upset because he had watched me stress about the job to the point where he was worried that I was going to get sick. I was constantly working at home, heading into work at 6:00 a.m. and not getting home until 5:00 p.m. We didn’t get to spend much time together, and there were plenty of nights our plans were interrupted because I had to plan lessons, grade papers, or stay late for parent-teacher conferences.

9. Anxiety and Depression Are Coming-Just You Wait!

Every Sunday night of the school year, I would find myself anxious and sad. Why? I had to go to work the next morning, and I was dreading the stress and pressure to be the perfect teacher. There were nights that I was up until 3:00 in the morning, tossing and turning, thinking about all I had to do the next day. First, I had to get to school early. Hopefully, everything was ready to go. If not, I would print off anything I needed (if my work computer cooperated), oh and I had to remember to take my personal computer, even though I wasn’t allowed to use it to print, but just in case my antiquated work computer wouldn’t turn on. What if the principal came by to observe my class and thought I wasn’t doing a good job? Which techniques was I suppose to implement? Oh yeah, there’s a “war on boys,” according to the administration, so I have to add in some of the activities that were strongly suggested at the beginning of the year, or else I could get written up. The list just goes on and on, and by October, you’re going to be anxious and possibly depressed. In time, if you stick around long enough, that will become your normal state of being.

10. Poor Health and Weight Gain

There is a reason teachers are always dropping off glazed donuts and candy in the teachers’ lounge. The job sucks, so sugary carbs are used to satiate the urge to sob daily. While you are nursing your depression with poor food choices, your body will begin to spread, and the number on the scale will increase. I gained 30 pounds during my teaching career-25 in the last two years. Now that I am no longer teaching, I have lost 25 pounds. Coincidence? I think not. I am back to eating kale, exercising, and enjoying life. No need for the sugary treats!

Last But Not Least

Teaching was a fall-back career-just in case the writing didn’t work out. Well, I never truly gave the writing career a shot because I was scared of judgment-what if people didn’t like my writing? What if I couldn’t sell any copies? I finally came to the realization that the judgment and chance of failure were less scary than remaining in the classroom. Now that I am giving writing a proper shot, it seems that this is a career I can have. All I have to do is keep writing and putting work out into the world. If I give 110%, like I did every year I was teaching, I will be a very successful writer!

Deciding to leave teaching behind has given me a new lease on life. This year, I am NOT going back to school and I love it!

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The Ames Monument

My husband and I like weird little haunts, off the beaten path places that few people visit, or see the wonder in exploring. In June we packed a cooler full of goodies and hit the road for Peoria, Illinois, where the maternal side of my family was having a reunion. I love road trips, and over time, I’ve gradually convinced Bradley that driving to destinations is much better than flying, because you get to experience the land in between your home and your destination. The first day we left in the early evening and drove to Laramie.
After exploring a few places around Laramie, we headed to the Ames Monument. I have a few friends from Wyoming, but none of them had heard of the monument or knew anything about it. So, of course, we had to stop by and visit.

There was another place on our itinerary, Buford, or PhinDeli Town Buford, but we ended up not stopping because it is now closed. Like most of the towns we stopped in along I-80, Buford exists because of the Transcontinental Railroad, but once railroad usage declined the small town dissipated,

That place was the convenience store in Buford store. I was interested in visiting the site because it was a town with two residents, and it was won in an auction by a few Vietnamese businessmen. They decided to rename the place after their coffee brand.
The idea seemed to be that they were going to peddle their coffee at the store, but the owners must not have spent much time in this section of Wyoming. There are very few people in the area, and the state has a spillover of Mormons from Utah who don’t drink coffee, so a cup of joe might not be a big seller in this area. The store was closed when we passed through, and it appears that the town of two might be the town of zero at this point.

The Ames Monument is located about 20 miles east of Laramie. As you cruise down I-80 eastbound, you come across Vedawoo, unique rock formations in the distance. You take exit 329, drive down to a dirt road that has a sign for the Ames Monument. The trail is rocky and would be challenging to traverse after a rainstorm, but we made it without fail in our Ford Taurus. Houses spread out across the wind, stripped land.IMG_1880

Even though it was June, a chilly wind blew across the tree-less land, penetrating my windbreaker. Bradley and I stood there and marveled at the structure and read the placard that told us that it was erected in honor of the Ames brothers-Oakes and Oliver. The brothers invested a great deal of money in the railroad and were involved in something of a scandal, in which Oliver was censured in Congress. A few more fun facts about the brother-Ames, Iowa and Ames, Nebraska were named after the brothers. There are some articles out there that indicate scandal on the part of the brothers, but the monument was constructed to redeem the reputations of the brothers.

The monument was completed in 1882, and the goal was to have it at a stop along the Transcontinental Railroad so passengers would get off the train and admire the monument. The pyramid is four-sided and 60 feet tall and 60 feet at the base, and it is made out of native granite. No remnants of the railroad remain, but the monument still stands in the middle of southeastern Wyoming.

Visiting the monument was not life changing, but it caused me to reflect on how we often invest so much time, money and effort into things that fade fast. The Ames brothers made huge impacts on the Trans-Continental railroad, but the monument honoring them sit in obscurity, unbeknownst to many. The railroad they helped fund is nowhere to be seen, and the towns that sprang up around the rail line, are gone. The monument cost $62,000 dollars to build in 1882, but how long was it prominent? How many Americans headed west with the goal of simply seeing the monument? I can’t be sure, but I am willing to guess..not many.

What things in your life are taking top priority? Are those things really important? Or are they expensive, obscure objects that you won’t care to recall in a a decade or two? Why not let those things go and focus on something you love? Sometimes the things we view as big and important, are simple inflated by world views, or our imagination. Today, take some time to focus on the little things that make you happen. In the end, they may turn out to be the big things.

Blood Lines

When I heard there was a family reunion planned for this summer, I knew I had to be there. Back in the mid-1980s, my family and I embarked on this spectacular road trip that took us through several states in the Midwest and the southern United States. With my dad at the wheel, we traveled to see both sides of our family, stopped to see a few sights, and created a narrative that would forever echo in my heart. Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas are the stand out states-there could have been a few more, but this trip is the one that made me fall in love with the road.

On that trip, we went to a family reunion-the only one I can recall attending during my childhood-but those memories, fresh and eager to be remembered, were starting to wane into mythology. Was it really as pleasant as I remembered? There were times when I wasn’t sure those few days we spent in Blytheville, Arkansas, had been as sweet as the memories seemed. Other days, days when I thought, “They couldn’t have been that sweet, because I never saw most of those people again.”

My grandfather, Norman Thigpen, died last year. I was unable to make it to the funeral, and when my mom sent me an obituary in the mail, I couldn’t open it. I didn’t make it to the funeral because I was pregnant, and already planning on making a trip to Michigan for my sister’s wedding, a few months later. Sadly, Lillie Elizabeth would never take a breath.

After the loss of my daughter, I wanted nothing more than to go home. Not the home I share with my husband in North Ogden, Utah. Utah, regardless of how long I live here, will never be home. I was longing for the home that is in the bosom of my family. My parents, niece, sister, and brother-in-law came to Utah for the funeral, and it was refreshing to have them near, but they had to go back to Michigan. After they left, I needed the comfort of a familiar, familial face, and that is when I opened the envelope and took out my grandfather’s obituary.

My grandfather’s obituary was comforting, and I longed for more. I wanted to be surrounded by the laughter and joy I remembered from my childhood. But I was hesitant, and I missed the registration deadline for the family reunion. My husband kept asking for the dates so he could take time off. I hesitated and procrastinated because I didn’t know how it would be to see all those people again-my people. My family. One Saturday morning, I woke up and called my cousin Bud to ask if it was too late for me to pay for the family reunion.

The first thing that struck me about him was that he sounded like my grandfather. He had that slight hint of a southern accent, underlined with a Midwestern cadence. His voice was warm and familiar, even though I could not remember the last time we had any contact. The blood we shared, the warmth of our connection was automatically activated as if it had never been interrupted. We talked for a while, sharing details about our lives, and all of a sudden, I was SO excited for the family reunion. This is your chance, I told myself, to rekindle the family flame. It is all up to you.

When I arrived at the meeting room for the reunion, I found Bud, and he told me that my grandfather had been the glue. That he had been the one to hold the family together.

“I want you to know that we’re all here for you. Uncle Norman really held the family together. We want to know you.”

So, the legendary family reunion back in the 1980s was real. It was as beautiful as I remember it, and the next reunion will be just as sweet. I returned home with the same spirit of hope and love that I had when I made it back to Detroit after the trip to Blytheville. The difference is that I am older now, and it is entirely up to me to keep the bonds secure.

The family reunion we had in the mid-1980s is legendary. I can recall the big street party, the hot, heavy Arkansas air that somehow did not deter me from wearing long sleeve shirts and pants. The invisible strings that tied me to the multitude of people that attended-all my kin-folk. Sometimes, I wonder what it would have been like if we’d nurtured those bonds better. What if we had dived deeper into that connection of blood, shared history, and familial love? What would it have been like?

My life has been excellent. Sure, there are stumbles and falls along the way, but overall, I can’t complain. BUT…What if I had been more heavily aligned with my family? The family reunion reminded me of the one thing that I know for sure when I think of the maternal side of my family-it’s going to be fun. There is always laughter, jokes, and warmth. So when I heard that there was a family reunion, I knew I had to be there. Not just because I wanted to go, but because I needed the love and warmth that only my family could give me.

The book was already planned, and in the final stages, before we went to the family reunion. But the strength to actually publish the book, and feel great about it, came from attending the reunion. As I stood next to successful and joyous cousins, I realized that I wanted to be in that number. I wanted to take my rightful place next to the people who are doing what they love and feeling good about life.

When we returned from our trip, I sat down and wrote out my writing goals. By the time we have the next family reunion, I will be able to stand next to my successful and joyous cousins and tell my happy story of becoming an independent author.

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The First Week in Review: Successes and Opportunities for Growth

I published my novel, Who She Was: A Sylvia Wilcox Mystery last Monday, July 8th. During the week, I reviewed my results, listened to a ton of author podcasts, and learned more about Amazon Select and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. I am keeping track of what strategies produce the best results. First, I have to make this clear. I do not intend to see a return on my investment for this first book, for at least a year. I also do not expect to see a livable income from my writing for the first 3-5 years. Becoming an independent author means that you are starting your own business. The 3-5 profitability timeline is more realistic than putting your book out and thinking that you are going to become an overnight success. With that in mind, the information I’m tracking is simply there to identify trends and strategies.

Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited

Is Kindle Unlimited worth it? I know, all self-published authors are asking that question these days. Here is where I stand: It’s essential to get my name out into the world is more important than how much money I will make from it. I also plan on switching to more of a global publishing strategy, once I have some success in the Amazon market. So, I have enrolled my book in Kindle Unlimited Select. I am a new author and acquiring followers and people who enjoy my writing, is key to getting my career off the ground. During the first week of being in Kindle Unlimited, over 1600 pages were read, the equivalent of three books and a few extra pages. The estimated royalties from pages read were a little over $6.00. The royalties are based on the Kindle Unlimited fund, so the rate at which the royalties accumulate changes throughout the month. That is something to take into consideration when you are looking at the pages read.

After the first 90 days, I will go wide with the distribution of my ebook. At that time, I will be able to reach a broader audience. I hope that I will have accumulated plenty of reviews by that time, and readers around the world will be willing to take a chance on me.

Free Promotion

I set a free promotion for my ebook for July 14th. Before the promotion began, I posted Facebook advertisements on pages that advertise free ebooks. I didn’t waste time blasting my personal Facebook page with information about the free promotion, but it was visible on my Facebook Author page. My parents, siblings, and close friends will buy the book if they haven’t already, but that is not the market I am interested in building. I need people-strangers-to take a chance on me.

107 people downloaded my book during the free promotion. I was able to get to number 17 on the bestseller list in the Private Investigator Mystery genre. I was elated!! There were also 4 downloads in the United Kingdom, 2 in Germany, and 1 in India. I was so excited! I hope that some of those free downloads will result in reviews and dedicated readers.

A final word on offering the book for free. The next time around, when I publish Displacement, I will provide Who She Was for free for the first three days after I release Displacement, which is actually a prequel. Reading every book in a PI series is typical behavior of mystery readers. For example, I have read every single book in Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series. Some books are better than others, and there are times when I get frustrated with main characters. Even so, I will definitely be preordering the next book, because I’ve been along for the ride since the mid-1990s, and I HAVE to know what Alex and Milo are up to. I also know from interacting with other mystery fans, that this is how we are. We will read an entire series, so if one book is free, we’ll take a chance on it, but there’s little doubt that we’re going to buy the next book in the series.

Sales

I ran a preorder, but as I mentioned before, I didn’t want to flood my friends and family on my personal email with information about my writing career. With that said, a preorder for an unknown author is more of a formality than anything else. While it only generated 4 sales, on the day the book was released, I received 4 more sales, and that helped boost my author and title ranking. The other bonus of setting up a preorder is that it makes it harder to back down. If you get cold feet, you can cancel it, but you won’t be able to post a preorder on Amazon for some time after that (I believe it is it a year). So, it is in your best interest to get that book uploaded and be prepared for your book launch.

Moving Forward

I spent some time writing last week, but I was not having much success. Yesterday, I printed off the snippets I have written on the next novel-33,000 word- and I began to read. This morning, I woke up, spent three hours at my online teacher assistant job, and in the middle of a virtual meeting, the rest of the plot came to me. As soon as the meeting was over, I talked it out with Bradley, and I had an outline completed within ten minutes. This was a significant breakthrough because the most important thing at this point, is to get another book out there, and that needs to happen within the next few months. So, that’s a little update on how things went this week. I’ll give another update at the end of the month.

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Becoming Braylee

Someone asked me why I chose a pen name. Well, there are several reasons. I thought it was a catchy name, the URL brayleeparkinson.com was available, and while I love detective fiction, I also write literary fiction-a much different genre-so I wanted to use a pen name for my detective fiction. All those things are correct, but there is one more fundamental reason.

Last November, my husband and I experienced the shock of our lives. Our baby girl, Lillie, was born too early. Unfortunately, the hospital we went to had no interest in trying to stop my labor when I arrived or delivering our baby. In fact, they thought my labor was nothing more than gastrointestinal issues and were discharging me when my water broke. After that, the nurses wheeled me into a room where I labored, without help from any medical professional, and our daughter, who was breech, died in my womb. They also didn’t think I needed help delivering the baby, so by the time the doctor arrived, the baby was halfway out-literally. The doctor was only there for the final push. My husband and I begged for help, but no one came. A doctor didn’t show up for an hour and fifty-five minutes. It was unbelievable. The whole thing seemed surreal, and I wanted answers.

The answers were horrifying because the death of our daughter was preventable. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do the change what had happened, and the state we live in has a lower standard of care than others, so the hospital and the doctor won’t be held accountable for any wrongdoing. It was a terrible, unexpected tragedy, and there was a chance that both my husband and I were going to slip into absolute despair. But there was another choice. The other option was to make sure that Lillie’s life, and her untimely death, left our world forever changed. The death of our daughter could only be a beginning or an ending. We decided that Lillie’s birth was going to be a beginning.

I have always wanted to be a writer. I remember reading a Puff the Magic Dragon book, and falling in love with the idea that there was a story, a whole world, in the “crack in the stucco.” At that point, I knew I never wanted to leave the crack in the stucco. I wanted to live in a world of stories. Over the years, teachers, friends, and classmates praised my writing, but I doubted what they were saying. Even now, as people tell me, “Hey, your book is good,” I find the doubt threatening to emerge, but something has changed. I promised Lillie that her existence would change everything about my life, and I meant it. But after we lost Lillie, I was devastated. So, I needed someone else to step in and make it happen. That’s when Braylee arrived.

I had already chosen the pen name a week before I went into labor. At that time, I just wanted to see if writing under a pseudonym would make a difference. Would I actually finish books, get them edited and published if I was writing under a different name? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to find out. So I pulled out a story I’d started in 2009, and began working on it. A week later, Lillie passed away.

Needless to say, I was in no state to write. Feverish from an infection, and fighting off depression, I decided to quit my job and focus on writing. To do that, I needed more than a pen name. I needed a persona, an alter-ego if you will, to come out when Melanie was unavailable, and write. When Melanie was catatonic, Braylee would sit down at the computer and complete a chapter. She took a manuscript I began working on in 2009 and decided that it was going to be done in a month. While Melanie met with lawyers, went through several rounds of antibiotics to fight an infection her OBGYN had failed to diagnose, and combed through medical records for answers, Braylee was writing 2,000 words a day.

Of course, the journey would not have been completed without the unwavering support of my husband. When he noticed that I was sitting on the couch, staring off into space, not doing anything, he would encourage me to get on the computer and write. He celebrated my decision to quit the part-time teaching job that was sucking every ounce of my mental energy, and when I started looking for an editor, he told me to find a good one, and we would make the investment. He was not only supportive, but he was also sure that I would be successful. No doubt. Not an ounce. And that was something I didn’t have. I had concerns, but the more he told me how there was no way I was going to fail, the more I started to believe that it was possible. Maybe I could do this…

Braylee had to take over at times. There were still moments, even after the manuscript went through a few rounds of edits, and others had read it, that I would have doubts. But Braylee Parkinson was publishing this book-not Melanie. Melanie was still healing, and even now, she is still going to the doctor to make sure that all of the symptoms of the undiagnosed preeclampsia she had during pregnancy are gone. So the pen name allowed me to step outside of myself and write when my mind was blank, or throbbing with the pain of the loss of my daughter. I promised Lillie that I would publish the book in July, and I’ve done that. The book is not perfect, but it is good enough, and it is only the first in a long line of books to come. So, why did I use a pen name? Because I needed one to step outside of Doubting Melanie and make my dreams come true.

Click to order: Who She Was: A Sylvia Wilcox Mystery!
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I’m Working Here! The Value of Doing Nothing

Writers write. I know that’s a necessary truth, but writers, as well as every other person, regardless of profession, also need periods when they are not doing anything. This is something that is lost on a good chunk of society. If you aren’t doing something, you’re lazy and wasting time. I taught high school for six years, and two major themes of my former career stand out in my mind. First-Teachers work constantly-even when they are off work. Secondly-There is no such thing as free time. Leaving the classroom behind has been exhilarating! I’ve lost twenty-five pounds, and I don’t have crushing anxiety every Sunday evening because I am dreading returning to work, and I have free-time. There are moments when I am doing nothing more than vegging out on the couch, watching Magpies deconstruct nests they built the previous spring.

As a child, I was prone to daydreaming and running off to a mystical place in my head. Of course, I was admonished for that more than once, but I was a lot more stubborn back then, and I refused to give it up. As an adult, and especially as a teacher, I had no time for daydreaming. Instead, I was constantly busy, and the busier I became, the lower student test scores were, the less the students learned, and the more I disliked my job. Why? Because there is a point where busy is just that-busy. It doesn’t mean you’re getting anything worthwhile done. There is this idea that we need to be busy-constantly advancing toward a goal. There is some truth to that. It helps to have a goal in mind. What is false about that ideology is that we always have to be working to make progress. Staying busy doesn’t mean you are getting anything done. I have written a great deal over the past few weeks, but a lot of that information will be edited out. Some of those words were forced because I wanted to make the 2,000-word minimum I’ve set for myself. Last week, I started to let the word count slip. 1,500, 1,000, and eventually-300.

So, my daily writing goal had fallen by the wayside. There were times when I was pecking away at the computer, but nothing worthwhile was being produced. It is always better to have something than nothing to edit, but when you know that what you’re writing is crap, it’s frustrating and hard to go on. My in-laws wanted us to come up and visit them at the campground where they are spending the week. One of the reasons they wanted us to stop up was because they wanted to show us where the old homestead and graves of my husband’s relatives are located. Mother-in-law is a great storyteller, so I was excited to go, but there was part of me that thought, ‘Oh no! This is going to interrupt my writing routine!” The night before the excursion was the 300-word day, so by the morning of the trip, I figured, “Why the heck not?”

We went to see the homestead that my husband’s great-grandfather bought when he and his family came to the United States to join the Mormon Church. The question of whether or not this was a spiritual journey or a choice made by a man who no longer wanted to work in coal mines, and longed to own land-is up in the air. Regardless, the great-grandparents moved to Utah where they experienced success, heartache, pain, happiness-all the good and bad stuff.

Visiting the family burial plot, I noticed that six of the headstones were those of babies. The sad, sorrowful loss of children who have not even had a chance to live, struck my heart. My husband and I also have our own little baby angel, and while my husband’s great-grandmother was dead long before he was born-she died a year before my father-in-law was born, I felt a kinship with her. One of the babies buried in the plot was my husband’s aunt. His grandmother lost two babies soon after they were born. The grave of a baby is extremely painful to visit, even 140 years after the death has taken place, but the sorrow of a mother who loses her baby is something that only other mothers who have been through the same thing understand. I touched those headstones and said a little prayer of alliance and understanding. Some have turned their backs to me, because they don’t know what to say about the loss of my daughter. These women knew what it was like to bury children. Before leaving, I thanked them for their understanding.

As we walked through the graveyard, the headstones whispered stories of strangers. We were the only four people on the grounds, and outside of the basic family stories my mother-in-law would interject for context, we stood silent and still, all of us imagining what it must have been like to live in that rugged little town, in the late 1800s. Getting out from in front of my computer, feeling the warm breeze of canyon winds against my face, and visiting the homestead and the cemetery where my husband’s ancestors are buried, helped get me over the writing hump. Last night, I wrote 2,000 decent words.

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