April 14, 2015

Made It Moment: Susanna Calkins

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 9:26 am

Masque Of Murder

Susanna Calkins has an unconventional path to publication, and an unconventional Moment. Perhaps there is no such thing as convention when it comes to this writing life. In any case, I think the words below will speak to anyone who ever questioned his or her “right to write”. How many of us have kept this passion of ours secret, at least for a while? I certainly did, and I can admit now that it came from a sense of shame. Why wasn’t I succeeding? Susanna’s secret–that sounds like a title for a novel!–had different origins, but when she finally let it go the same thing happened for her that does for us all. We become writers.

Susanna Calkins

My made it moment may be a little different than that of other authors Jenny has so generously hosted on her blog. I spent eight years working on a PhD in European history, and a few more years after that as an assistant professor of history. I always enjoy telling people about how when I was a graduate student I first discovered the murder ballads that prompted my first historical novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, but the reality is it took me a very long time before I began to write that story.

It wasn’t so much that I felt pressed for time, although that was certainly the case, or that I wasn’t sure I could even write a full-length novel (let alone one that anyone might want to publish), which was also true. I just did not feel free to write creatively. I was supposed to be writing for other academics, not for readers. Only after I took a different academic job did I begin to feel freer from those constraints.

And even when I did finally begin to write that first novel, I did so in fits and spurts. A scene here. A scene there. Never knowing how those pieces would connect, but always so happy to indulge in what I called then my little secret hobby. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a novel—not even my husband—for years (years!), until I had written about 300 rather oddly constructed pages. At that point I let him into the secret, and a few other trusted souls after that.

But even after I got my agent and my contract with Minotaur a short time later, I was still very hesitant to let my academic colleagues know about my books, especially those from my graduate school. It was hard to let go of the feeling that I had failed as a historian because I write historical fiction.

However, a funny thing started happening after my first novel came out. I started receiving nice emails from readers, saying how much they had learned about 17th century England from reading my books. That they had hated history in high school and college, but that my books had kindled a real interest in the social, political, cultural events from the period. I’ve been teaching at the college level for nearly 20 years, and there is a good chance that I have reached more people with my novels than I ever did in a classroom. That is both humbling and empowering at the same time.

So my made it moment?

When my former professors began to congratulate me on my writing—on my decision to do something unconventional (at least for them!) with my knowledge of history. It’s not that I needed their validation to feel proud of my novels—it was more the realization that they understood that I had used the graduate training and knowledge they had provided me. It was just not as anyone had expected. Indeed, the research I did for my dissertation, which focused on 17th century Quaker women, grounded my third book in the series, THE MASQUE OF A MURDERER. So for me, the very act of incorporating my research into my historical mysteries, and seeing my stories in print, and hearing from my readers about what they had learned, all make me believe ‘I made it.’

Susanna Calkins has been intrigued by murder ever since she first stumbled across 17th century murder ballads in grad school. The idea that people used to sing about murder and other strange tales became the premise of her historical mysteries featuring Lucy Campion. Set in 17th century plague-ridden England, her second novel–From the Charred Remains–is short-listed for the LCC Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award.

April 10, 2015

Made It Moment: Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 8:49 am

Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café

I love welcoming Tilia Jacobs to the blog because the two of us have been engaged in a rousing conversation about indie and traditional publishing over the course of several years now.  (Here is Tilia’s 2014 Moment). Now with her second novel just released, the conversation continues, this time about the perennially stimulating issue of cover art. Many indie authors feel that this is a special part of the self-publishing process, and as you’ll see it literally became Tilia’s second Made It Moment. What was eye-opening for me was that the experience Tilia describes had more in common with what I’ve seen on the traditional side than I ever expected. I think you’ll agree that both Tilia’s Moment and her cover make you want to check out her new book–they certainly did me. Here’s to Moments all around!

Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

Question: Is a picture worth 36,000 words?

Answer: Sometimes! But it has to be the right picture.

One of the true joys of indie pubbing is the creative control it affords. Far from praying I will like the cover my publisher provides, I’m free to choose it myself.

After my publicist told me the cover of my first book stunk, I hired Asha Hossain for my new book, Second Helpings at the Serve You Right Café. It quickly became apparent that working with her was going to be a dream. She wanted to know everything about the book—practical things, such as the release date and eBook requirements; and artistic, such as genre and specific imagery I wanted. This too was layered with practicality: “Please keep in mind imagery should be ‘clean’ and easy to translate at thumbnail size, as that’s the size potential buyers will first see on sites such as Amazon.” Thus do both font and font size matter, and the cover can’t be so visually cluttered that lettering gets lost in the background.

Clearly, a multitude of factors contribute to a great cover, which is what makes the process so exciting. How will the verbal translate to the visual? Although every aspect of the story is limned in my own mind, right down to the scruff that’s not on my hero’s jaw (he’s clean-shaven), no one else can see those pictures. The perfect cover visually conceptualizes an invisible story—not plot, but mood, themes, and setting.

Asha sent me six covers, and I narrowed it down to two immediately. One showed empty chairs at a sidewalk eatery; the other, a blue-green cup on a cracked saucer, marked with lipstick. I posted them on Facebook and asked people which they preferred. The response was rapid and gratifyingly opinionated.

“My book cover intuition says the one with the blue cup and cookies is more eye-catching.”
“The one with the chairs makes me wonder about the place and the people who might come or might already have been there. The cup of coffee makes me wonder, ‘Do I need a cup of coffee?’”

“My vote goes for the turquoise cup version. The photograph speaks of physical desires and something slightly wrong, and the line breaks in the title make it easier to comprehend. The spoon even highlights the word ‘HELP,’ which is a nice touch.”

“I like the one on the right.”

“I like the one on the left, and I have left-leaning tendencies.”

Despite the voices of an impassioned minority, a near-consensus surged to the fore: the coffee cup was more eye-catching, the lipstick mysterious, and the cracked saucer hinted at doom (and who doesn’t love doom?). I told Asha, and in short order she sent me the hi-res image of the cover. I took a deep breath and clicked on the attachment.

It was perfect. I could see what the artist and others saw in my story: its mystery and romance, its lyricism and dark fear. The perfect cover gives a pow as satisfying as a tennis ball hitting the sweet spot.

And that was my Moment.

Tilia Klebenov Jacobs holds a BA from Oberlin College, where she double-majored in Religion and English with a concentration in Creative Writing. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a Secondary School Teaching Certification from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Tilia has taught middle school, high school, and college, and has won numerous awards for her fiction and nonfiction writing. She is a judge in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, and she teaches writing to prison inmates. Tilia lives near Boston with her husband, two children, and two standard poodles.

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