Observations of a Newly Minted Cheesehead
While shopping the other night I noticed a few things I found interesting.

I live in an area where the black population is a lower percentage than the general population. It’s not unusual to see a black person when I’m out, but it’s also very possible to go out and not see any. So, as I made my way around the huge market (the largest I’ve ever seen, with five aisles alone dedicated to frozen pizza and three very long aisles with various cheeses (this is, after all, Wisconsin). I became curious about the availability of African-American products, so I wandered over to the segregated section.

I’m not talking books. I’m talking hair care.

Not surprisingly, there was no black hair products section. I did notice that Pantene’s new line of shampoo and conditioner for relaxed (African-American) hair was carried, though, right there with the other Pantene products. That got me to thinking. Black hair products have been segregated as long as I can remember, even back in the day when Ultra Sheen ruled. But the Pantene products are always shelved with the rest of the Pantene products, even when there’s a black hair care section in the store.

I then headed for that other segregated section (and this time I mean books). The book section wasn’t all that large, but they did have a decent selection of romance. All the Harlequin/Silhouette lines were there . . . well, almost all. There were no Kimanis on the shelves with those Desires, Americans, Presents, etc.

Or so I initially thought. But as I scanned the racks, my eyes settled on a lone title with the distinctive Kimani trademark of a drawing of a female facial profile in bronze silhouette. The book was Brenda Jackson’s Irresistible Forces. The only other fiction title about African-American characters I saw in the store was Freshwater Road by actress turned novelist Denise Nicholas.

The interesting thing here was that the mass market version of Ms. Nicholas’ book had a cover depicting a woman from the waist down, wearing a full skirt. Her lower arms, legs, and bare feet were clearly visible, but they were drawn in a shade that suggested a tanned white female or perhaps a very fair black female (but only if that's what you're looking for). Ms. Jackson’s cover art showed no people at all, but rather just scenery of a breeze blowing through a bedroom.

Regular readers of this blog will probably remember that I mused about books with non-ethnic cover art a few months back, upon seeing upcoming covers. At the time I wondered if this would be the new trend. I also wondered if these books would sell better than other titles that depicted black characters on their covers. Well, Ms. Jackson’s book hit the New York Times bestseller list (the daddy of them all, y'all, congrats, Brenda!) at an impressive ranking, somewhere in the 30s. If this one store in the state of Wisconsin is any indication, it could be said that books with non-ethnic characters are also being picked up by stores in areas without significant black populations, thus expanding their exposure.

I don’t really have a point, but I do think both these things I noticed, about product placement and store buyer selection, are worth noting.
A good weekend to you all!
Guest Blogger: Reon Laudat

Michigan-based author Reon Laudat has seven romance novels to her credit. Here she shares with us some books on the craft of writing that she has found helpful. For more about Reon, visit her website.

Take it away, Reon!

There's no shortage of books available about the craft and business of writing. Over the years I've amassed an impressive collection. In other words, I'm a writing/publishing book junkie!

I have most of the popular old standbys: GMC--Goal, Motivation, Conflict by Debra Dixon; Bird by Bird by Ann Lamont; Story by Robert McKee; Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne/Dave King; and the whole Writers Digest Elements of Fiction Writing series in hardcover.

Here's a list of my most recent favorites and quick notes on why I found them helpful.

Manuscript Makeover--Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon. This is one of the most thorough books on revision that I've come across in a while. A detailed and methodical guide to developing a revision process that works for you - whether it's just about tweaks or a major overhaul. If you're willing to do the work, this book can help you home in on and fix your manuscript's weaknesses.

The Resilient Writer- Tales of Rejection & Triumph From 23 Top Authors, compiled by Catherine Wald. Writing can be a lonely, challenging and frustrating endeavor. Insight and inspiration for picking yourself up and dusting yourself off when the road to publication or staying published gets rough. Authors profiled include E. Lynn Harris, Elinor Lipman, Wally Lamb, M.J. Rose and Amy Tan.

Will Write for Shoes - How To Write A Chick Lit Novel by Cathy Yardley. I know chick lit as a genre is supposedly dead, but this book contains a lot of solid advice that can be used for any type of novel. I found the chapter titled "Driving with a Map" worth the price of the book. Yardley effectively shrinks Jack Bickham's wonderful book titled Scene & Structure to a two-page highlights reel. It's perfect for those short on reading time. This is an excellent basic book for aspiring authors.

Write Away - One Novelist's Approach To Fiction & The Writing Life by Elizabeth George. This New York Times bestselling author of "literary mysteries" presents a detailed diary of her writing process. My own copy is glowing with pink highlighting of advice I've returned to again and again. I've been known to give this one to fellow writers on my Christmas gift list. One section I found particularly interesting was about what she refers to as "THAD" or "Talking Head Avoiding Devices." She describes THAD as "an activity going on in a scene that would otherwise consist of dialogue ." She explains that chosen wisely THAD can do more than provide a visual for the reader. It can be used as a tool for revealing character. The back of the book contains a list of THAD suggestions to get the creative juices flowing.

Time To Write by Kelly L. Stone. There's a plan for fitting writing into any schedule. More than 100 busy writers reveal what works for them. I thought I'd heard it all. It hasn't been easy writing with my preschooler underfoot. Calling on the muse when I'm exhausted has been a challenge. This book has helped me stay motivated when the sofa and Dancing with the Stars or Top Model beckon.

Between the Lines - Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell. I bought this book for the chapters on handling epiphanies, transitions and backstory, but got so much more. Highly recommended.

The Making of A Bestseller by Brian Hill/Dee Power. An excellent book about the business side of writing. Includes interviews with editors, agents, booksellers and top-selling authors. My favorite chapter is titled "Getting Books On The Shelves And Out The Door."

Thanks, Reon! I'm sure these aids will prove helpful for aspiring as well as published writers.
Would you bring me a double vodka right away?

So said actor/director Sydney Pollack to a waiter in his role as George Fields the agent in Tootsie, one of the funniest movies ever made in my opinion, when his client Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) showed up at the Russian Tea Room dressed as a woman, Dorothy Michaels. Originally an actor before being steered toward directing by Burt Lancaster, Pollack had a way with delivering a line. The above quote was spoken flawlessly, as was, “God, I begged you to get therapy . . . .”

Sydney Pollack died this weekend, leaving behind an admirable body of work.

Speaking of double vodkas, I’m pleased to announce that my husband and I took full advantage of this holiday weekend. Phase I of our move is complete, and that we are now officially cheeseheads (residents of Wisconsin). Phase II will involve getting all that furniture and boxes we had to leave behind in Florida. But I can’t deal with that right now. Maybe after a couple of more double vodkas.
Anyway, while I do things like try to find my rollers and other stuff so I won't have to walk around looking like a tackhead, I’ve asked some of my writer friends to step up and do some guest blogs so y’all don’t get bored, on the topic of writing. First up will be Reon Laudat. I should be able to post Reon’s blog tomorrow.

Back to the boxes.
A blast from the past, and a glimpse into the future

One of the fringe benefits of being a writer is the possibility that someone you went to school with might be browsing in a book store, see your name on a book and say, "Is that the same person I knew from P.S. 19?" A look at the bio inside the cover that names my hometown will confirm their musing, and so will one glance at my author photo, particularly if it shows the my trademark US-map-shaped birthmark on the side of my left eye (with a mole right where Jacksonville, Florida would be, a nice coincidence, given that I lived there for 17 years). Of course, it helps that I write under my maiden name. "Bettye Underwood" would not mean anything to people I knew years ago.

This has happened to me a couple of times in the ten years I've been published. Yesterday I had an e-mail from someone I've known since nursery school (that's what they called pre-K back in 1961), telling me she'd read several of my books and is now reading The People Next Door. She just wanted to tell me how much she enjoys my work and offered encouragement to keep on writing. Encouragement is always a good thing, but it's especially sweet when it comes from someone you know. It's even better to hear that my friend's mom, whom I know, is well and about to celebrate a milestone birthday (so will my own mother, later in the year, except my mom is older). Naturally, I told my friend that she just has to read Once Upon A Project, an especially appropriate choice since we've known each other since we were 4 years old and we turned 50 just about a year ago.

I'm also happy to announce the birth of a healthy niece this morning. I wish we could see her, but since she's in Michigan we'll have to wait 'til next month. Isn't it funny how things work out? My brother-in-law is a first-time dad past 40, my grown stepchildren have a new first cousin, and my husband has a niece who is 20 months younger than his granddaughter. Maybe three or four years from now we'll get both girls to spend a week or two with us. It'll be like summer camp.

Or like nursery school.
A Short Post

I'm surfacing briefly just to announce that Once Upon A Project is now available through the Black Expressions Book Club.

Also, by the end of next month, Once Upon A Project will be available on CD. This isn't the type of CD a person buys at Wal-Mart, but rather, it will be carried mostly by libraries.

5 Questions for . . . agent Elaine English

Elaine isn't just any agent, she's my agent. She's not my first, but I like to think she's the last. She's certainly the best, as far as I'm concerned. We've worked together for five years (how time flies!), and she secured me my very first deal to write women's fiction. I thought it highly appropriate, in the wake of the publication of my fourth work of women's fiction, to interview Elaine now.

Elaine English is an attorney and literary agent based in Washington, DC. She has more than twenty-five years experience working with clients in the publishing and media business. She's represented commercial fiction as an agent since 2001. For a representative list of some of her authors and projects, visit her web site.

So, for all you aspiring and/or dissatisfied-with-your-current-representation authors, here we go!

Bettye: Welcome, Elaine! Let's start by giving everyone a clear idea of what type of projects you're interested in representing.

Elaine English: I handle only commercial fiction, and most of that is women's fiction and romance. I recognize that the line between literary and commercial fiction is not a clear, distinct one. I do consider things at that edge, but I'm primarily focused on the commercial marketplace. For romance, I handle most all of the sub-genres, except for inspirational romance. That means, I'm happy to take submissions in historical, contemporary, multi-cultural, paranormal, fantasy, etc., etc.. etc. romance. I'd also like to pick up a few more straight mysteries and thrillers for my list. I am starting to handle a little YA fiction as well.

Sometimes it's easier to just say what I don't represent; that's children's books, science fiction, and any and all non-fiction projects (including memoirs).

Bettye: That paints a clear picture for propspective clients. Elaine, personality is as important in an author/agent relationship as it is in any other kind. Can you describe the behavior of your dream client (me, of course)?

Elaine English: I love authors who share my vision of the agent/author relationship as a collaborative partnership. I don't want someone to be too passive, just sitting at home writing and never involved at all in the sales and promotion end of things. I also don't want an author who thinks he/she knows everything and just sees an agent as a necessary evil. The kind of relationship that you and I have, Bettye, I think works great. We're in touch whenever we need, but certainly that's every few weeks. You keep your ears out for new opportunities the same as I do, and we share that information and jointly make decisions. It's worked well for us over the years and the same kind of relationship seems to work well for me with most of my other authors.

Bettye: You're also a contracts attorney. Do you have much cause to go before a judge? And if so, who do you prefer dealing with, judges or editors?

Elaine English: Yes, I am an attorney with an active legal practice as well as my agency work. Most of my legal works involves the publishing business in one way or another -- reviewing and negotiating contracts, advising on copyright matters, sometimes doing pre-publication reviews of questionable manuscripts, and sometimes helping clients out of problem situations. But the bulk of my work is transactional rather than litigation. Several years ago, I did handle some litigation and I find editors to be so much easier to deal with than the judges I faced. The delays and arbitrariness can be similar, but the approachability of editors is far superior to that of most judges -- at least the ones I encountered in DC.

Bettye: I guess I'll consider myself fortunate not to have to deal with judges. Personally, it's hard to believe that anyone can be more frustrating to deal with than -- well, anyway. Let's move on to the next question. Do you ever read just for the joy of it, or is reading too closely associated with your work?

Elaine English: I do. I have always loved reading. From an early age, I had my flashlight under the covers so I could read in bed when my parents thought I was asleep. Escaping into a good book is still almost as much fun for me as eating hot fudge sundaes. However, when you read all day and late into the evening for work, the eyes frequently give out before the "fun" reading starts. I've found that reading non-fiction (something I didn't do much of before) now seems more of a break than sitting down with a novel. I've been reading a lot of cooking and food books lately which gives me a chance to focus on something else I love - cooking.

Bettye: And finally, how do potential clients contact you?

Elaine English: I ask that authors first contact the agency by sending an email query letter. Those can be sent to queries@elaineenglish.com. The letter should be in the text of the email, with no attachments. If I read about something that interests me, then I'll direct the submitter as to how to send me a partial in hard copy form. I was so inundated that I had to stop accepting unsolicited materials a few months ago, so any that are sent now will just be returned, unread.

Bettye: It's been five questions, but is there anything else you'd like to say to those who read this?

Elaine English: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this interview. I guess my best advice to writers is to keep writing, no matter what. Keep improving your skills and developing new talents for making that great story you want to tell come alive on the page. But before you send it to an agent, make sure that it really is your best work. In many cases, you're only going to get one chance to hook that agent on your project, so make sure it's your best effort. And remember, it's a very subjective business. Agents generally handle only those projects that they really, really love and as an author you deserve no less.

Bettye: And there you have it, writers. Polish those query letters! Elaine, thanks so much for answering these questions. You're a peach!

Busy Little Bees, Making Honey Day and Night

Movie buffs will recognize the above as a line delivered by Bette Davis in All About Eve.

I'm moving, y'all. As Jerry Orbach said in his most famous role as Lenny Briscoe on Law & Order, moving is one of the 10 most stressful situations, right up there with a colonoscopy.

Be back to the blog sometime next week.

Yeah, yeah, another interview

It's at Urban-Reviews.com, which is run by the lovely Radiah Hubbert, whose picture of us from Saturday at the Slam Jam I borrowed.
There's also a review of Once Upon A Project on the site (fortunately, the reviewer liked it). So check it out while I rush around opening an account with the electric and gas company and to find out who the heck will provide our phone and cable service, since AT&T does not service our new neighborhood.
Moving. It's definitely one of the 10 most stressful life situations.

Mr. & Mrs. Loving, together again
Mildred Jeter Loving, who together with her husband, Richard, filed suit to get the miscegnation laws off the books in their home state of Virginia, died of pneumonia on May 2nd at the relatively young age of 68.
You may have seen the Showtime movie about the Lovings that starred Timothy Hutton and Lela Rochon. The Lovings came from a part of Virginia where sex between races was not considered a big deal (it was much more open than in most areas of the South), but marriage just wasn't done. Sheriff deputies barged into their bedroom in 1958, just a few months after they were married, and hauled them off to jail (naturally, Mrs. Loving was kept incarcerated longer than Mr. Loving). The couple pled guilty to breaking the law and were banished from the state in lieu of not having to spend more time in jail.
By 1963, Mildred Loving had had enough of living in Washington DC and wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The ACLU took on the case and eventually overturned the decision and did away with the law. The Lovings returned home in 1967 and lived happily, but not ever after. Richard was killed in a car crash in 1975, in which Mildred, riding with him, lost an eye.
Mildred Loving, who according to her obiturary considered herself more Indian than black (a sentiment that may have lived in her heart, but certainly not in her physical appearance), lived out the rest of her life quietly, declining to give interviews.
They're together again, this time for good.

Have another Margarita

It's the fifth of May, otherwise known as Cinco de Mayo. This is a fun holiday, because, like St. Patrick's Day, it's largely an excuse to drink
. . . except the weather is warmer and daylight hours are longer.
I went to a Cinco de Mayo party Saturday night, after returning from a day at the Slam Jam exhausted. My husband "forgot" to mention he'd accepted an invitation (he does that a lot). But it was fun, and I actually found myself downing pomengranate martinis, which were quite tasty. I've never had a pomengranate in my life until then.
Speaking of the Slam Jam, it was wonderful to see my fellow writers, some of whom I met for the very first time. I got to meet colleagues whom I've communicated with online, on the phone, or both, like LaConnie Taylor-Jones, Gwyneth Bolton, and Celeste Norfleet (Celeste and I share the same wonderful agent, who will be taking five questions late next week).
Deatri, Dyanne, Barbara, Ann and possibly others whose names I can't recall put together a wonderful event. I do admit to being a little taken aback when I saw that the size of the panel for the author session I was scheduled for with my good friend Sean Young had doubled to include two additional authors, so that didn't go quite the way I'd planned. I was only there for the one day, so I don't know if additional authors were squeezed into other author sessions or just ours; but I do understand that these things happen when planning an event of this size, and I stand by my initial impression of a job well done. I'm just glad I got there in time. I had to pick up an important certified letter from the post office and went to the wrong one (in this area, every two to five minutes of driving puts you in a different town). But hey, when you're moving, you want to know what day your inspection/reinspection/closing is scheduled for, and I wasn't willing to wait until this morning to find out.
The marathon author signing gave everyone a chance to schmooze (not snooze, folks). I was tickled when two authors brought their entire collection of Bettye Griffin romances for me to autograph, and honored by those who purchased Once Upon A Project, both readers as well as my writer colleagues Gwyneth, Celeste, and Donna Hill. I approached sister authors Marilyn Tyner and Alice Wootson singing the Irving Berlin classic, "Sisters," and they surprised me by knowing the entire song, right up through "Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man." I guess we're showing our age, Lord help us.
I didn't stay for the Emma Awards (instead of going to bed early, I was sipping those pomengranate martinis) and don't know the winners, but I do know that my friend LaConnie won Favorite Debut Author. Congratulations to LaConnie and all the other winners and nominees!
Happy Cinco de Mayo to all of you! I've got one more weekend of book promotion this Friday and Saturday, and then I can turn my attentions to other things, like packing, since M-day will be less than 2 weeks from now!
Too Smooth For Words

Last week, Shelia Goss did an interesting round-up of classic black movies over the years. A couple of people mentioned Cabin in the Sky, but surprisingly, no one said anything about Stormy Weather, made the same year (1943). It's one of the backstage movies about putting on a show, which means the storyline is slim (and unbelievable, since Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was 65 to Lena Horne's 26 . . . but I digress). I have many happy memories of watching this movie with my siblings on Saturday afternoons. What makes this movie so wonderful is the many musical and dance performances, including Lena Horne singing the title song which has since become her theme. Dooley Wilson was funny, Fats Waller jovial, Cab Calloway all teeth, Bojangles tapped up a storm, Lena Horne was beautiful, Katherine Dunham and her troupe sexy.

But this movie contains what Fred Astaire - no slouch himself - called the best dance number ever filmed - the Nicholas Brothers in a flawless performance, the sheer athleticism of which boggles the mind. No wonder Fayard Nicholas needed a hip replacement later in his long life. One has to hope they did this in one take, but probably not.

Watch it and marvel! And have a great weekend. I have a signing in the Citicorp Center in downtown Chicago tomorrow afternoon and Saturday I'll be at the Romance Slam Jam, doing an author session with my friend and colleague Sean Young, a signing in the afternoon, and catching up with old friends and new ones the rest of the day. I'll be back to the blog on Monday.