Writing Female Friendships & some recs from you!

She-nanigansWhen I set out to write the Hot Under Her Collar series, I wanted to write about women clergy. It wasn’t really a choice to focus on female friendships as much as it was to mine the conflict-ridden, boundary-tangled world of being a young woman priest or pastor. Of course, it made sense these women would be friends as part of the series premise, “Sex in the City goes to seminary,” but showcasing their friendship wasn’t really a part of my original intention.

Maybe that’s because I don’t have an easy, sparkly relationship with the idea of female friendships. When I think about it, I get hung up on the ones I failed at, the ones where I was rejected, and especially on the feeling that I often fail to return the generosity of others. I’m pretty sure I didn’t really know how to be a good friend to other women until adulthood. I have several important friendships far older than that, but for years they were probably an act of mercy toward me.

Fortunately, that’s changed. I suspect it has to do with how I eventually came to accept myself and learned to choose the right friends for the real me.

Now I have far more pals than I can reasonably maintain intimacy with (mostly because writing has made meridiculous an asshole who spends all her free time you know…writing). I rely on the mutual trust that meaningful connections can easily be rekindled between true friends. I feel incredibly honored to have the love and regard of so many amazing women (and men), but I have also come to believe I have something to offer in those friendships–humor, frankness, pragmatism, compassion, a spiritual perspective, dirty jokes, mad cocktail-making skills, insatiable curiosity about people and the things that interest them, a small mountain of discarded hobbies about which I can happily converse. There may be more, but that’s probably the best stuff.

When a reader told me she loved the female friendships in the Hot Under Her Collar series, it got me thinking–I must be showing something of my hard lessons learned in the friendship between Jordan, Lily, and Alma. In the next book Not Another Rockstar (because of course I have to write a priest + a rockstar book) you’ll meet another friend, Suzannah.

Here are some of the hard lessons I hope I’ve poured into the book:

braHonest, direct communication, delivered with both humor and compassion: One wise friend of mine has a rule I love--Am I the right person to say this? Is now the time? Are these the right words? When I learned to chose the right friends for me, I sought out people who will tell me the truth like they see it, who can talk me down off ledges even while refusing to blow smoke up my ass. I’m a straight shooter, and while I totally respect subtle, tactful people (and I’ve even tried to write a few) I REALLY like to write about friends who are helping each other grow by being honest, direct, compassionate, and funny. Who better to hold up the mirror for us than a loving friend?

There’s no need for rivalry. I went to seminary as a very young woman–a whopping 22 years old. The institutional tendency to pigeonhole me and the other young women, the generalizations and assumptions made about us–they were intense. In response, my initial instinct was to compete, to try to show myself as THE BEST young seminarian. Fortunately, the actual material I was learning helped me to see this behavior for what it was–defensive and destructive. Now, when I like or admire someone, I show them, and I try to find things to like in everyone I work with. I’m not a saint, but any unkindness is usually the result of hurt feelings–it’s not aggressively judgmental anymore. I try to be supportive and encouraging, even when I’ve decided to say one of those hard, honest, direct things. To me, there’s nothing more respectful than thoughtfully delivered critique.

Vulnerability and even shamelessness. Priest, mother, and writer are among the top jobs for grinding Nice_persondown your ego. Pregnancy does shitty things to your body. Marriage is hard work. Parenting is humbling. Standing in front of people and preaching words of challenge and inspiration is really fucking hard. By being real about this stuff, my friendships have grown so much deeper. Having that friend you can talk about your weight struggles, your sex life, kvetch to about your husband while knowing she will still love your husband, give you totally hot boudoir advice, make you a salad to eat alongside your cake and wine, and tell you stories about her worst sermons to make you feel better–that’s a true friend.  

Friendships in books and life provide the comic relief while also helping us grow, and that’s my guiding principle in the Hot Under Her Collar books. When Alma takes Lily vibrator shopping, it’s both an act of true friendship, and (I hope) pretty darn funny.

A few weeks ago, I asked Twitter for books that include notable female friendships. I heard from so many people with suggestions–too many to list here. But these particular authors came up a lot and I look forward to checking out their books!

Olivia Dade

Nora Roberts

Kit Rocha

Victoria Dahl

Lisa Kleypas

And I’ll add my friend Ruby Lang: her contemporaries about a group of female doctors are wonderful. The friend relationships are very important to the character’s development and complicated in a very realistic way that I love!

If you want to recommend other authors, or share something you think is important/valuable about female friends, leave me a comment!

**much thanks to the fabulous Liz Blue, who found these friend memes for me!

 

NOT OVER YET is out (& the woes of blurbing)

STORIES (4)Today is release day for Not Over Yet, the second book in my Hot Under Her Collar series about young female clergy falling in lust and love, while also finding their professional groove.

I have BIG plans to have brunch with my fabulous editor (and with champagne of course)! Then, to avoid the unproductive glued-to-the-computer-but-not-accomplishing-squat thing that happens to me on most release days, I’m going to paint my bathroom. (I guess I better have only one mimosa, if I want straight lines.)

If you haven’t grabbed your copy of the book yet, why the heck not?

Perhaps it’s because I’ve failed to entice you with my agonized marketing attempts.

Case and point: writing blurbs is one of the hardest parts of authoring/publishing for me. My brain just doesn’t like to reduce the complexities of what I hope is a rich story with layered characters into 150 catchy words. Identifying the best hooks and playing up the tropes sometimes feels in conflict with the truth of what the story is about. And yet, everyone tells you a good blurb sells books!

This is the blurb for NOT OVER YET:

Some people aren’t meant to have it all…

Three years ago, nanny Lily Yee enjoyed a passionate fling with her boss, the recently divorced and extremely eligible Eric Roche. Then the sexy surfer/CEO wanted more than she could give, and she fled to pursue her one true calling—the priesthood.

Eric learned how to love from Lily and wanted to build a happy family with her. But she walked away without explanation, leaving him angry, confused, and…fine, he’ll admit it, occasionally a little desperate for her.

When a crisis in her church leads Lily back into Eric’s arms, his heart calls to her as strongly as the priesthood. He’ll do anything to win her back, but she knows she’s not cut out to juggle a family and a career. She needs to let him go again soon, but she can’t deny they’re not over yet.

Thanks to the help of my patient critique partners, it’s not too bad. But if I had all the words in the world to say what it’s really about, I’d say something like:

Not Over Yet is an In Love with the Nanny meets Second Chance Romance story about a Sexually Empowered Heroine with Exhibitionist Tendencies who is facing the Hard Issues of Gender and Race in her new job as an Episcopal Priest and simply can’t believe she is someone who gets to Have It All with her Perfectly Flawed Hero and his Adorable Daughters, who look more like Lily than their adoptive parents.

Lily is a remarkable, fierce, bright young woman plagued by perfectionism and acutely aware of the expectations of others. Fresh out of college, she gets totally in over her head in an affair with an older man, who falls for her hard. She leaves him for all the right reasons, and accidentally breaks his heart. Three years later, when it seems like all the wrong reasons might make it possible for them to be together, she has to decide if she’s been thinking about her calling in a backwards way all along.

Eric is sexy, sweet, strong and well intentioned. He’s doing his damnedest to be the world’s best single dad. For Lily, he’s Mr. Right at the wrong time. Especially because Lily doesn’t think there will ever be a right time for her. I love how he thinks about Lily, and all the scenes where he is surfing, or getting unwelcome pastoral advice from his hippy priest Fr. Bobby. I’ve never written an all-in-from-the-start hero before, and he was really, really fun to develop!

Damn it. (1)

His almost desperation for Lily made me totally fall in love with the cover art I found, with her on top! (Honestly, it was super hard to find appropriate cover art for these two, and this picture was the only one I really liked. Their positions cemented it for me.)

Far better than a blurb is an excerpt–maybe this little “Second Chance Kiss” scene is the best way to tempt you to read Not Over Yet:

He’d never told her about his past because he’d wanted to present himself as good husband material. But she’d left him, and being around her was sandpaper on the stubborn, raw wound.

Christ. Time for a change of subject. He reached for her laptop, but his shoulder spasmed. “Ow. Fuck.”

She was there in an instant, digging her sharp little elbow into the rock-hard knot of muscle. “I thought you said it was better.”

“It has been.” He ground out the words through the pain radiating up his neck and down his arm.

“Are you saying I’m giving you cramps?”

He laughed, but it came out hoarse with strain. “God that hurts. Don’t stop.”

“Sh. I know the drill.”

In the silence, her delicate but strong fingers kneaded the muscle along the top of his shoulder. As it eased, she expanded her focus down his spine and up his neck. Tingles of pleasure crawled over his scalp and cascaded down his arms. A rush of blood flowed to his groin, but he didn’t fight it—that would only make his desire dig in, as stubborn and intractable as Lily herself.

So much had changed, but she still smelled the same, like the flowery shampoo she bought at the drugstore. Damn, he’d missed her scent. He caught her hand and dragged it around so he could place a single, chaste kiss to her palm.

She shuddered.

His cock pulsed. Okay. Maybe not so chaste.

He spun in the stool to face her. His heart raced, a barrage of desires threatening to break him open so that all his longing might ooze out. Was he actually going to risk her rejection again?

One glimpse at her pretty mouth open in surprise and the answer came back a certain yes. But he had to keep it light, or she would bolt and refuse his help again.

She made a halfhearted attempt to pull away, but he held her hand, and when she encountered the slightest pressure of his grip, she gave up.

Still, her lips pursed. “Eric.”

“I know. Help. Friends.” He traced his fingers over the inside of her wrist.

She leaned closer, letting her belly brush against his knees.

“Lily.”

She met his gaze.

He could say it again, what he’d said the first time. I’m going to kiss you.

But now, with that damn collar around her neck, and her history of rejecting him plus three years’ absence poured on top, a man could only say one thing. “Can I kiss you?”

Her jaw slackened, parting her lips with what could only be surprise.

Score, shouted a voice inside him.

Her pretty, wide mouth spread into an even wider smile. “Only because you asked so nicely.”

And then she leaned in, meeting him halfway, brushing their lips together. Her smell, her warmth, the familiarity of a long-missed caress. His skin buzzed with desire and he ached to touch hers all over, to press their naked lengths together. But she hadn’t even opened her mouth to him, only let their lips linger in the tender kiss. He wanted to tease his way inside her and test if she tasted the same, but he would accept what she offered and not press.

Not yet, at least.

Have I finally succeeded in tempting you? Then go forth and click!

button_amazon_kindle         gr button

Why I wrote a POC heroine in Not Over Yet

STORIES (4) For clarity preceding this post, I am a white author.

Not Over Yet, the second Hot Under Her Collar book releases next Tuesday. It’s about a young female Chinese American priest who is a part of my “Sex in the City goes to seminary” crowd and her studly surfer/CEO ex.

I first conceived of writing the Hot Under Her Collar series several years ago and set out to brainstorm about real issues in the church that might work as conflicts in romance novels.

How well-meaning churches invite and embrace racial diversity (or don’t) is one such lively issue, and as soon as I considered it, a whole story and its characters began to emerge, largely inspired by things I had learned from colleagues of color about their struggle to get ordained or hired or simply be respected in our predominantly Caucasian denomination.

In particular, I have one dear friend and colleague who taught me worlds about my advantages (white privilege) by sharing with me her contrasting experiences as our careers have moved in parallel. Here I am resisting the urge to rave about her for a paragraph or so because she is one those people you just feel unbelievably fortunate to count a friend. So, all those years ago, I asked her if it would be okay for me to draw on some of things I’d learned from her to write a story for this series. She said yes.

Damn it. (3)

A part of me wondered if I should even try, since it wasn’t my story. But by then the idea behind Not Over Yet wouldn’t let go, and I wanted to explore the important issues of race in clergy life, just as I explored my church’s confused messages about sexuality in Not A Mistake.   

I’ve worked on this book for about three years, and it was hard for about a dozen reasons. I asked for a lot of help from writing friends and clergy colleagues, especially my Asian American friends in both categories. Sometimes what they told me was difficult to hear or forced me to examine my own assumptions; sometimes it required I change something major about the book. Needless to say, I learned a lot.

Among those many lessons, I found myself weighing conflicting feedback from my sensitivity readers–they came from different backgrounds, were different ages, had different relationships with their parents and the church. I could do my very best and try to understand and incorporate many perspectives, and still, I came to realize, something in the story was likely to rub someone the wrong way.

In the face of that realization, for a while I considered dropping my manuscript into the virtual trash bin. I was afraid that no matter how much I intended to critique my church’s brand of racism and white privilege, I might unconsciously reinforce racist stereotypes. But like my character Lily, I’ve never learned anything by retreating out of fear, so I decided to push on knowing I will continue to learn things from people’s reactions, positive and negative, to this book.

Since I started writing Not Over Yet, there has been a wonderful outcry for diverse books written by diverse authors. I’m not sure I would have begun this project in this moment, because I want to be an ally for diverse writers writing their #ownstories. But the book was already written and Lily’s character is my best attempt at understanding an important story that is not my own story.

Damn it. (4)

At the core, I think that’s what ALL fiction writing is about: trying to understand a character across difference. I’m not any of the characters I’ve written. When fleshing them out, I have to trust there is something universal about human emotions. I have to draw on empathy and the golden rule to IMAGINE another’s lives and motivations.  

Even deeper down, I believe this is true for all human relationships. We are all different, and we can’t read each other’s minds. The only way we achieve intimacy and understanding is by empathy and imagination. (I learned all this from a Roman Catholic theologian named David Tracy who calls it the analogical imagination). Perhaps racism is, among other things, a failure of this imagination, resulting in a lack of empathy.  

Because racism distorts our relationships and impairs our empathy, I had to work harder and take more care to imagine Lily. I had to ask friends to help me stretch my imagination. As I write this, I am overwhelmed with gratitude they trusted me enough to tell me hard truths. I’m sure I got some things wrong, and I’m still going to hit “publish.” But that doesn’t make me brave–it just means I’m doing my job as a writer and a human being.

Now, all these years after I first began this book, in the current conversation about race in publishing, it feels important to me to say I deeply believe we need diverse books by diverse writers, and I am not one of them. Not Over Yet in no way meets that need.

I wrote it from a place of empathy, with an open heart and a desire to share lessons I’ve learned. It won’t be perfect, it might even offend. But I intend to keep listening and learning from people who are different from me and the response to Not Over Yet will be part of that process.

By the way, if you want to follow the conversation about race in publishing and diverse books, check out the #ownstories hashtag. I also recommend following @AlyssaCole on Twitter.  Not only is she a fabulous writer, but she is very wise and articulate about these issues. Her tweets resonate as true to me, and at the same time the challenge me and do just what I described above–help me stretch and deepen my imagination and empathy.

 

Nurture Your Hope: 18 authors & readers rec hopeful romance reads

At the time is post goes live, I’ll be boarding an airplane at SFO, headed out for a week of family vacation, but I absolutely will approve and reply to comments ASAP during my travel day. I hope we get lots more recommendations to add to this list!

Way back when I first started writing romance, I thought a lot about how the genre’s story arc, with its guaranteed happily ever after, resonated with my beliefs as a person of faith. It seems to me that the arc is all about hope.

Hope is something we must cultivate and nurture, because as we’ve seen lately, the world will steal it from you. And without hope, we can’t make any positive changes in ourself or our communities.

Some people call reading romance escapist, but I think it’s about nurturing our hope, our faith in happy endings, in humanity, and the possibility of redeeming personal flaws. If a book brings joy, laughter, comfort, or pleasure, that’s not a guilty indulgence. That’s taking care of our souls, so we can be loving, hopeful people, strong enough to fight for what we stand for.

So I asked a whole lot of writers, readers and bloggers what romances have given them hope.  Here’s what they told me:

Emma Barry, co-author of the Fly Me to the Moon series, said Courtney Milan’s A Kiss for Midwinter

Serena Bell recommended Lauren Layne’s Blurred Lines, because of its empowering message to “go after what you want.”

Amy Jo Cousins mentioned Molly O’Keefe’s book Seduced because it’s “all about being reborn.”

Jenny Holiday also mentioned Molly’s series that begins with Everything I Left Unsaid.

Of course, when Molly O’Keefe’s name kept coming up, I had to ask her! She said she likes books that make her cry and bleed for the happy ending, such as her recent read Never Sweeter, by Charlotte Stein.

Sally Kilpatrick cited the Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev because ultimately the heroine’s belief in love and determination to do what’s right are rewarded.

Ruby Lang, who kindly lent me her ear while I was ruminating over writing this post, mentioned Mia Hopkins‘ fun, well-written steamy books.

Book blogger Sunny Lee said second chance romances are some of her most hopeful, including Rekindled and Absolution by Kaylea Cross

Regency writer Sara Ramsey cited the classic Susan Elizabeth Philips book Ain’t She Sweet, for its themes of redemption and forgiveness.

Julia Seymour, romance aficionado and Lutheran pastor recommended Beverly Jenkins’ Indigo and Shannon Stacey’s Exclusively Yours with this high praise: “It makes me feel good about people and families and things being possible if we put in the work.”

Lizzie Shane (who’s going to RWA next week with a double RITA nomination!) recommended Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation as a powerful read.

Also, my pal Liz Blue asked Suleikha Snyder, Amy Jo Cousins, Tamsen Parker, Vanessa North, and E @ Bookpushers the same question. Together, they sent me this list of books that make them smile:

Tessa Dare – Spindle Cove series https://www.goodreads.com/series/58621-spindle-cove
David and Leigh Eddings – Belgariad Series https://www.goodreads.com/series/40739-the-belgariad

Madeline L’Engle – A Wrinkle in Time https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18131.A_Wrinkle_in_Time

Robin McKinley – Beauty, Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End https://www.goodreads.com/series/164261-folktales

Becky Albertalli – Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19547856-simon-vs-the-homo-sapiens-agenda

If you have a hope-inspiring book to share, please tell me in the comments!

 

Beyond Family Values–a sermon about Pride, Pulse, and private vs. public grief.

Enough people on Twitter told me they’d like to read my sermon that I decided I would in fact post it here. Last Sunday was a challenging one for preachers of the revised common lectionary, with a doozy of a Gospel text in which Jesus says things like:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Recently a thirteen-year-old came to me for help on a school assignment for a paper analyzing a religious theme in literature. She said, “I want to write about the religious theme of family values.”

“Hm,” I said. “Can you think of places in the Bible that show family values?”

“No, that’s what I’m struggling with.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said. “Because the Bible doesn’t actually talk about the kind of family values you’re thinking of.”

She frowned, perplexed. For many children her age, and many people I know, family is a kind of religion.

Loyalty, love, duty between parents and children–these family values are the most sacred thing in our society. However, they are not Jesus’s religion. When a man offers to follow Jesus but only after he goes home to bury his father, Jesus tells him to let the dead bury the dead. In other words, if you really care about the Kingdom of God, stop worrying about your duty to family, your observance of all the old customs. Instead, join Jesus’s work, which is so much bigger, and more important, than your individual family.

Jesus says this on his way toward Jerusalem, when it has become clear that the worldly forces of violence and oppression are mounting against him, clear that the world is not yet ready to hear that loving one’s neighbor is as important as loving oneself, and one’s family or tribe.

It’s a tough message to hear. And, let’s be honest. Having a tribe can be fun, having a family can be comforting and make us feel secure. But they can also divide–as we draw closer within the lines we’ve drawn, we inevitably leave others outside the lines.

If you’ve tried to get free from an abusive family, or you’ve ever felt ostracized from a tribe, you know this well. Walling off borders, stereotyping a particular race or religion as dangerous–these are acts of retreat into the safety of tribalism. But it’s not safe for everybody–only the ones inside the walls, willing to conform to the rules of the tribe–and this is not loving our neighbor as ourselves.

From its beginning, Christianity refused tribalism.* Jesus held up the despised tribe of Samaritans as good neighbors and rebuked his disciples for wanting to harm them. The strict Jew Paul became a servant to the Gentiles. In his letters, he refers to his fellow Christians as brothers and sisters. It’s language so familiar to us from hearing his letters that we think nothing of it, but in Paul’s world this is not a small thing. Once, he drew his boundaries around his tribe of Jews and declared God had chosen them alone, but when he meets Jesus, he begins to understand God’s family includes everyone, its bonds are formed by adoption, not blood, and every man is his brother, every woman his sister.

This universal family is a nice idea, right? It makes us Christians feel all warm and fuzzy. But when the rubber hits the road, we’re just making dinner for our own spouse, our own children or parents, not the whole human family. We can’t afford to pay the utility bill for all the tribes of the world, only our own household.

I’m a mom of five-year-old twins who are constantly calling out “mommy” at the same time with competing demands. If everyone gets fed, the house tidied and the dishwasher run, I feel like I’ve run a marathon. This is my number one duty. Little people depend on me. It’s a sacred duty, one that brings me joy alongside exhaustion. In fact, I will even go so far as to say being a mother has brought me closer to God by teaching me what God’s love for us might be like.

But by itself, my family is not the kingdom of God. Concern for, service to others outside our household is what God calls us to. And no matter how many bowls of mac and cheese I serve, how much laundry I fold, or how much love I pour into my children, the world is not yet that kingdom of peace, of justice, of abundance that Jesus proclaimed and God created us to enjoy. Taking care of my own little tribe will not transform the world, what WILL change it is actions that benefit others rather than myself, embracing those “others” as brothers and sisters, and extending compassion, care, support to them even when it costs me, even when it carries risks.

When I was fresh out of seminary more than ten years ago, my boss was a woman rector of a nearby church. She was an amazing mentor. George W. Bush had recently declared the second war in Iraq accomplished, but the Iraqis struggled under their tribal conflicts and teetered on the edge of civil war. One of my mentor’s daughters, a few years younger than me, was a journalist, and she was being sent to Iraq to report there. My rector was so proud of her, and I remember studying her face over lunch one day and looking for the signs of maternal panic I would expect for her daughter heading off into danger. Heck, even I was afraid for the young woman.

When those signs didn’t appear, I said, “Aren’t you worried for her safety?”

“Sure.” She nodded. “But we’ve always taught our children that personal safety isn’t the highest good. Sometimes you have to take risks for the things you believe in.”

Those words surprised and moved me, and they have forever shaped my parenting. My five-year-olds aren’t headed off to report in war zones anytime soon, but I do try to think about how to raise them with a sense of mission, of duty to those beyond our household, to the whole human family. At bedtime we practice loving kindness meditation to cultivate compassion for ourselves, our loved ones, and then all the people of the world. More times than not, one of the twins makes a potty joke or burps during the meditation, but I hold out hope that its forming them as compassionate people who will strive to serve the world and transform it with love.

But sometimes, as a member of a family, it’s hard to face up to this duty, to keep focused on loving the whole world instead of my narrow, personal and private concerns.

Two weeks ago today, my beloved cat Pietro died. I’m just going to say, I’m sure you all have great cats, but my cat was THE best cat in the world—patient with my kids, good natured, spirited and fun. In the last picture I ever took of him, he was next to my daughter wearing Mr. Potato head’s tiny glasses while she sported the matching toothy grin like the Cheshire cat. When our friends heard he’d died, I received a flurry of text messages officially declaring him the best feline ever. That day, out of the blue, he came home severely maimed and my husband rushed him to the emergency vet, but he didn’t make it.

Later that day, I learned about the terrible shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. My heart was already broken over Pietro, and for several days I couldn’t face the news or social media about that tragedy because my private grief was so huge and I had to firmly control it to function with the kids.

Then, added to the mix of my grief, I felt an awful shame over my silent retreat from the public lament and outrage over the shooting. I’m proud to be a priest in an inclusive denomination–the Episcopal Church. I aspire to be a genuine ally to my GLBTQ brothers and sisters. But I had no words of solidarity or comfort for them. After all, Pietro was just a cat and 49 men and women died in that bar. It was selfish of me to be so absorbed by my private sadness for a lost pet.

I kept thinking Jesus would be disappointed in me, would tell me to let the dead bury the dead, to focus on the living, to focus on actions that will make a difference, the words that will help end hatred and violence. But I couldn’t do it. I could only tread water above my grief and focus on daily, mundane tasks.

Finally, I told my friend and colleague Will about this shame. Will is a hospital chaplain and grief expert. He shook his head in astonishment to let me know I’d gotten it wrong. “First off,” he said, “No gay man would ever say your cat is ‘just an animal,’ he was a part of your family just like my dogs have always been my children.” And he said personal grief, close to home, the holes in the fabric of life that a death leaves, the furry spot in my closet where Pietro slept on all my workout shirts—of course that would come first and hit hardest, before my grief for Orlando.

But now, I am beginning to ache less, to contemplate letting my kids pick out a pair of kittens later this summer, lifting up my head to see the larger world. As I wrote this sermon, I read an article that named every victim and shared a little of his or her story. It mentioned the loved ones grieving too, facing those same holes in their lives. And I wept, my own loss finally melding with the larger, corporate grief for those women and men.

Jesus doesn’t ask us not to love our family, he asks us to reach deep into our well of private, personal love and share it with neighbors and strangers, with those beyond our family and tribe.

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Jesus was rejected, homeless, unwelcome when he marched toward Jerusalem and told one man to let the dead bury the dead, told another not to look backward or say farewell to his household. He was headed for a showdown with the powers of violence and oppression, and he WON.

Yet those forces persist. Our world is full of refugees running for their lives and unwelcome in those places they hope to find safety. It’s full of people whose sexual orientation makes them a target for violence, even in the sanctuary of a gay bar.

What does Jesus want us to do about it?

He wants us to re-draw our lines of family and tribe to include all people, to pour out the kind of love we feel for our closest relatives and dearest friends onto outcasts and strangers, refugees and victims of violence. He wants us to do something that already happens in this church–welcome strangers and make them family.

He wants us to do what thousands of people in San Francisco are doing at the Pride Parade right now–marching together as a family of GLBTQ folks and allies who refuse to let violence win, just as the first Christians did.

They will hold up their signs that read LOVE WINS, because they know, like we followers of Jesus know, that love gives life. When people join together across boundaries of family, tribe, sexuality, and all divisions–to proclaim God’s love of all people, to declare God’s complete and total rejection of violence–then love will truly win.



I’ll admit I was nervous about preaching this–in my congregation, the acceptance of GLBTQ folks has been a sticky point for a few folks, a matter of silence for others, even though the majority of members has been readily welcoming GLBTQ folks for many years. As is so often the case, a sermon I thought sounded radical seems in hindsight almost tame.

However, it was very well received. People were especially grateful for a way to make sense of that tricky Gospel passage and to join together in public lament. I wasn’t the only one getting weepy that day.

*Of course, now that I'm posting this online I feel the need to note that in the history of Christianity, there have been many tragic counter examples, where we ignored these anti-tribal roots and descended into hatred and violence.

Cover Reveal: Not Over Yet (Hot Under Her Collar #2)

I’m so excited to share the cover of my July release, Not Over Yet. It’s book two in the Hot Under Her Collar Series, which I like to describe as “Sex in the City goes to Seminary.”

Now that I’ve shown you this cover, I will have something pretty to tweet that’s not a picture of booze (But if you want to see my pictures of booze, do follow me on Twitter)!

So, meet The Rev. Lily Yee and her ex, the studly, surfer/CEO Eric Roche…

Their story has challenged me as a writer more than any other I’ve written. I won’t say I loved every minute of crafting it, but I will say I am thrilled with the final result and immensely grateful for all the generous readers and critique partners that helped me fine tune it.

STORIES (4)

Here’s the blurb:

Not Over Yet

Hot Under Her Collar, Book #2

Some people aren’t meant to have it all…
Three years ago, nanny Lily Yee enjoyed a passionate fling with her boss, the recently divorced and extremely eligible Eric Roche. Then the sexy surfer/CEO wanted more than she could give, and she fled to pursue her one true calling—the priesthood. 

Eric learned how to love from Lily and wanted to build a happy family with her. But she walked away without explanation, leaving him angry, confused, and…fine, he’ll admit it, occasionally a little desperate for her.

When a crisis in her church leads Lily back into Eric’s arms, his heart calls to her as strongly as the priesthood. He’ll do anything to win her back, but she knows she’s not cut out to juggle a family and a career. She needs to let him go again soon, but she can’t deny they’re not over yet.

Bloggers & Reviewers, you can request an ARC via this form.

Currently, you can pre-order it exclusively on iBooks.

Of course, it will be available on July 26 at all the usual eBook retailers!

And you can add it to your Goodreads TBR: gr button

 

A character I’ll suffer with–My evolving thoughts on likability

I just finished the final season of a beloved show this week–Justified. That finale’s got me thinking all over again about what makes a character likable and why it matters.

Throughout the show, my heart has been with the criminal antihero, Boyd Crowder.

Boyd, played by Walton Goggins

Boyd, played by Walton Goggins

Usually over the US Marshall hero, Raylan Givens.

 

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 6.04.20 AM

Raylan, played by Timothy Olyphant

From the beginning, I was anticipating a tragic ending, with mutually assured destruction. I won’t spoil it for you, but the ending was both surprising and pretty much perfect.

One thing I did not love about the final season–I fell out of love with Boyd. To me, he lost his thieves’ honor as he become more of a trapped animal than a man who lived by his own code.

As I mentioned last week, I also recently DNFd a novel my book group chose, because of a too shocking turn in the middle. I had found the two male POV characters who’d been introduced,so selfish and self-absorbed that I didn’t like them at all. Then a delightful female character came along and I was reengaged in the book, until the shocking thing happened. Because I liked that female character, I considered returning to the book, but I ultimately found I wasn’t interested in suffering with the male character who’d undergone a horrific loss. I had no compassion for the man, who’d seemed selfish to me. (Call me cold, but compassion is my day job, so I don’t force it in my reading.)

When I first began writing romance, I was clobbered by critique partners and editors with the importance of likable characters. I railed against it. Maybe it’s the priestly side of me that likes stories of redemption, which require someone starting out in need of it. Also, my reading taste runs far wider than just the romance genre, and I have often enjoyed books that were more intellectual than high drama. I enjoyed writing stories that, while juicy with conflict, probably tipped toward interesting over emotional.

But over time, writing has changed the way I read. I have read and critiqued SO much romance that I find myself bored by characters that don’t hook me as sympathetic and emotional pretty early on. I don’t always need them to save a cat, and I still love a good antihero, especially if we get tantalizing glimpses of his or her code of honor. I’m not sure if this is a case of my tastes conforming to the genre, or of my evolution as a reader.

Of course, this has me thinking: How do I make a character both interesting and likable?

How do you?

A related self discovery: books about characters who strike me as selfish and self-absorbed really bore me. I can think of a few I’ve read lately where the author tried to convince me this person wasn’t actually like that. Hey, look–they have friends, they have an honorable motive, etc. But a character’s inner monologue reveals the truth about them in a page, doesn’t it? All the little ways they are thinking me-me-me.

It turns out, I want a character to be thinking about their romantic interest, others they love, and a goal greater than him or herself (even if it’s a misguided, antiheroic one) more often than they are thinking of their own self-interest and personal gratification. (Maybe I loved Boyd because he did do this, when often all Raylan wanted was the satisfaction of bringing Boyd down.)

I’m pretty patient to see how this develops in a particular character. I know a lot of people set aside books in the opening chapters, but I tend to quit before the black moment. If I don’t care about the characters enough, I just won’t go into the dark place with them. I go into dark places a lot at work, and with friends, and sometimes in my own family. In real life, I try to offer compassion to anyone, whether my narrow heart judges them worthy or not. After all, we know underserved compassion can transform someone into a lovable human being. But in my reading for fun, I let myself be a harsher judge–I’m not going to suffer with a selfish jerk.

What about you? What makes a character lovable or loathsome to you? Do you like antiheroes and people in need of redemption? Do you put up with people IRL that you’d stack up on your DNF pile?

A Slovakian Dog, a Sexy Pastor, and a Severed Hand (a reading roundup).

I’m in a lull between releases right now, since Not Over Yet won’t come out until July 26. That means, I get more writing time, and also some much needed reading time! I mostly read my book group selections, things others recommend to me, or stories that completely hook me based on their premise.

Also, I mostly “read” audio books. Not to brag, or anything, but I was an audiobook junkie way before it was cool. I mean, I owned a Walkman well into the 2000s just so I could listen to books on tape. That’s right, tape! During the summers of my seminary years, I worked on the building and grounds maintenance crew, painting, gardening, cleaning and devouring mystery novels with that Walkman clipped onto my waistband! Because of my longstanding addiction to the audio format I’m very tolerant of the voice actors. They rarely make me hate something, but I suspect they often make me love it even more than I would have otherwise. I guess that’s a bit of a caveat when I make a recommendation.

downloadAfter meeting Sally Kilpatrick at RT2014 and connecting over being people of faith in Romanceland who are interested in things like sexual ethics and telling stories of whole sexual people who love Jesus, I’d been anxiously awaiting her southern/women’s fiction type novel The Happy Hour Choir (not available as an audiobook). I really liked the willful and sympathetic heroine, and how she handles having the hots for pastor. The book is set in the south and it’s the world I grew up in, though it feels a long way from the San Francisco Bay Area and the liberal church I call home.

This is a story of a woman making peace with God by facing up to the lies people have told her about herself and God. It revolves around a choir who practices in a bar, and its members are just the sort of lowlifes Jesus liked to hangout with, and whose company I tend to prefer. The whole book is a gracious counter to the kind of “Christians” who judge harshly and on appearances, rather than practicing compassion, mercy and taking time to really know someone’s circumstances. It also deals with the tragedy of many kinds of sexual abuse, which churches have been known to harbor. Kilpatrick’s writing is top notch and I really look forward to seeing where she goes with this particular vision and niche she’s writing in. Her second book is now available too!

My book group pick was Molly Prentiss’s Tuesday Nights in 1980. As seems to happen often in my book group of mothers with young kids, our planned date fell apart adownload (1) few days out due to a case of croup. I was on the fence about finishing the book, not having liked any of the main characters at the start, but then one was introduced rather late who I found quite charming so I kept on listening. As I was brushing my teeth one night, dead tired after writing too late, I was enjoying the author’s lovely prose when something awful happened to one of the main characters. (SPOILER ALERT—you could figure it out from the title of this post.) It was so unexpected and upsetting to hear right before bedtime, and my poor, shocked heart was literally pounding. I stopped the book and downloaded another one in my queue right away. It had an adorable dog on it, so unless it went all Old Yeller on me, I figured I could count on the book not to add to my trauma and fill my mind with cute images of puppy dogs.

 

download (2)I’d downloaded Stay at the recommendation of my fabulous friend Serena Bell, when I asked for her favorite women’s fiction titles. She sent me a list, and of all twelve or so titles, only one had an annotation: READ THIS! Of course I obeyed, and it was such an instant relief from the trauma I felt from Tuesday Nights. Stay isn’t my normal cuppa—in fact, I almost avoided it because of the dog. But I was quickly hooked by the poignant blend of humor and emotion. Broken hearted and totally shit-faced drunk from drinking vodka and Koolaid, the heroine orders a dog on the Internet from Slovakia! Ridiculous and yet so adorable. It’s one of those books where everyone is treated so compassionately by the author and it’s chock full of complicated, nuanced characters. Ironically, I began raving about it to Serena, who said, “I haven’t read that one.” I was confused. “You told me to read it!” She laughed. Apparently, she’d just pasted it from her TBR, and READ THIS! was a note to herself. Hopefully she’ll take her own advice soon so we can discuss!

I had a bit of a letdown when that one finished, which was a chance to start something else that had been languishing on my Audible TBR. In the mood for download (3)something different and the guarantee of an HEA, I queued up Danelle Harmon’s The Wild One, which I had purchased on sale when she was having a Facebook Party. I met Danelle online recently because she’s a member of an Episcopal church and her priest introduced us. I’m at 50% on this one, and I am loving it. Her voice and characterization is really fresh to me, the prose is lovely, and there is a Machiavellian duke who totally reminds me of Georgette Heyer’s Devil. (His name is Lucien, which I think can’t be a coincidence). I will definitely read through the series to get to his book, and I’ll be recommending this author to historical fans.

 

What about you? Any fabulous reads lately?

 

Not Over Yet (Hot Under Her Collar, Book #2) is up for Pre-Oder

I’m hard at work on the final revision for Hot Under Her Collar, Book #2, and I wanted to tempt you with the the description.

Drum roll please….

via GIPHY

Not Over Yet

Some people aren’t meant to have it all…

Three years ago, nanny Lily Yee enjoyed a passionate fling with her boss, the recently divorced and extremely eligible Eric Roche. Then the sexy surfer/CEO wanted more than she could give, and she fled to pursue her one true calling—the priesthood.

Eric learned how to love from Lily and wanted to build a happy family with her. But she walked away without explanation, leaving him angry, confused, and…fine, he’ll admit it, occasionally a little desperate for her.

When a crisis in her church leads Lily back into Eric’s arms, his heart calls to her as strongly as the priesthood. He’ll do anything to win her back, but she knows she’s not cut out to juggle a family and a career. She needs to let him go again soon, but she can’t deny they’re not over yet. 

Pretty catchy, huh? It took a whole posse of writing friends to help me whittle that baby down and choose this version. Thanks for the input, ladies! I couldn’t make a decision to save my life without you!


Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 8.44.44 AMI’ll be releasing the cover in the next week or two, and the book will release in late July.

In the meantime, you can add it to your Goodreads TBR.

Or, you can pre-order it exclusively on iBooks. Of course, it will be available on release day at all the usual eBook retailers!

 

The Babushka on Google Street View (or researching The Siren’s Dance)

New ReleaseFrom Dostoyevsky to the modern mystery writer Boris Akunin I have always loved books set in Russia, though I never imagined I would write one. And then I stumbled upon Slavic folklore—the dark fairy tales of Baba Yaga, even grimmer than the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, scary stuff that can give adult-me nightmares. My husband is an enormous fan of The Witcher video game and novels, and together we peek through our fingers with delight at the creepiness of the imagery.

After finishing the Blood Vine series, I really wanted to write about a lesser known kind of paranormal creature. My imagination hooked onto a category of female spirits who were the ghosts of wronged women, often suicides who were pregnant outside of marriage. It still speaks to me that this phenomenon must have been widespread, and understood to be such an injustice that a spirit cannot rest until she has punished the man who wronged her or another in his place.  These spirits are the ones I’ve chosen to write about in the Siren Romances. Rusalkas, vilas, maras–all vengeful female spirits with sirenic powers of seduction.

In the first book, it seemed a safe subject because my siren emerged from a teapot in San Francisco where I live. I didn’t have to know that much about her home. But then my muse wanted to write her sister’s story, and it had to be set in Ukraine. Sadly, I’m not an expert on Ukraine—more like a lover from afar. In The Siren’s Dance, I’ve surely gotten some details wrong and left plenty spare, as romance novels are wont to do. But I researched the heck out of the book, especially the setting. I spent hours on Google street view, looking all over Kiev, Odessa, and at several stops on the highway in between where my heroine could stop to pee (that’s one detail I didn’t leave out of this book). I read about all the historic buildings and landmarks. My rationale: if I couldn’t capture the culture like a Ukrainian, I could at least show the place off well.

One day, I was writing a scene where my hero had to drive from Odessa into the countryside to a smaller coastal Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 9.32.36 AMtown. I looked at the street views to see what he would see, and was so touched by the glimpses of village life. Two men repairing a car, a babushka dragging her grandson down the country road. I felt as if I’d strolled down that road and had the chance to wave at them.

Maybe it’s a danger, the way the Internet makes the world seem small, makes us believe we know more than we do because so much information is at the tip of our fingers.  If, like me, someone is hardwired to quickly identify oneself as an expert, it can be a dangerous tool. I have done my best to wield it with love and respect for a culture I admire but to which I do not belong.

And, the truth is, in many ways it IS a small world, and we humans are remarkably similar. That grandma, those men fixing their car—their doppelgängers walk down my street all the time.  And the themes of the book—rejection, lost love, maternal love—are in fact universal. If we can’t visit another country for research, then Google street view, Youtube videos, the warren-like research hole of Wikipedia are a pretty awesome way to make our worldview bigger and our hearts more connected to others around the world.

Here are the Pinterest Boards I made for research too:

The Siren’s Dance (Book 2)

The Siren’s Touch (Book 1)

If you’d like to tour Ukraine with me in The Siren’s Dance, leave me a comment. I will give away one eBook to a random winner chosen from comments here by Saturday morning PDST.