Category Archives: Book Reviews

Voice, Authenticity & the Right to Write


Is it OK for a writer to create main characters of the opposite sex, sexual orientation or with a different ethnic background from her own? Is it believable? Will the readers trust the voice of the protagonist? And IF I write a novel where the characters live in another country, is that stepping too far outside of my zone of authenticity? Since both of my novels that I’m currently selling to agents have crossed these barriers, have I now become an author that is too hard to sell in todays restrictive fiction marketplace?

These are questions that kept surfacing for me while at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference this past weekend. First, let me say Wow! What an amazing four day journey! The SFWC had more than 100 workshops, pitches to agents, meetings with editors, authors, publicists, experts and lectures by famous authors, poets at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill. There were hundreds of authors from all over the globe with manuscripts in hand. The level of creativity was intoxicating. I highly recommend writers go next year!

What I heard from agents, and a few published authors, however, was confusing. Two agents (after hearing my short pitch) told me I would be ‘hard to sell’ to top 5 publishers because my main character of Between Thoughts of You is a Japanese-Hawaiian woman and I’m not Hawaiian. Yup. These comments were made before reading a word of the manuscript and without asking me why I chose this character, or how much research I did, or how I felt compelled to create this person who is a strong, yet gentle and spiritual female—the perfect combination to be the hospice nurse to trigger an old man who misses the love of his life, a Japanese woman he met after WW11.

A published author who spoke at the conference, expressed her trepidation over crossing ethnic and socio-economic barriers in her first novel inspired by an NPR story. Because her protagonist was a woman from Mexico and she, a college-educated, middle class woman from San Francisco, she said she feared whether she had the right to create her. “I worried. Who am I to write about someone from Guatemala or Mexico?” she said to a large audience of writers.

As a journalist who studied with the BBC in London, researched documentary journalists such as John McPhee, and who studied and published with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, where I was asked to live with islanders and sailors for months and write about them, I was dumbfounded by her statement. I sat in the audience and thought, “Who are you NOT to write about a Mexican immigrant?”

IF a writer is inspired by a true story and wants to fictionalize the experience to create more awareness, the writer is hearing a calling. IF a story beckons to the writer, it will become inflamed with passion and purpose. And IF, even in the face of fear and doubts, the writer can’t kick the idea of the story, much like a buzzing of a bee at his ear, then the writer must follow the calling and write the damn story. The mission, then, becomes to open the eyes and hearts of the reader so that they can become compassionate towards a human whose experience they might not otherwise care about. I would then say that it becomes imperative that we cross those borders, of ethnicity, walk that tightrope of place and voice as an author, to enter into the international language of emotion. And, of course, much research needs to be done to make the voice of the writer and the sense of place and location believable. But this is achievable.

It’s not surprising that my first novel Lucifer’s Laughter, a murder mystery and my MFA thesis when in New York, has a main character that is a lobsterman in Maine. I lived there and documented that region and had been a crime reporter for years prior. My second novel, Uriel’s Mask, is inspired by a newspaper article I read back in 1991 when I was a reporter in North Carolina. I kept the newspaper clipping with me through multiple moves, knowing I would write about this character, an illiterate daughter of a freed slave, who created masks in honor of the spirits who visited her while she sat by the French Broad River in Asheville. See, I knew that I’d write about her one day, but I didn’t know exactly how. It was a story that called to me. In Uriel’s Mask, her masks (like in real life) are sold in New York, allowing all her grandchildren to become educated. One of the main characters is a southern black man, a talented musician and her grandchild, who becomes one of the first black students at University of North Carolina. As a southerner, Uriel’s Mask, may be easier to ‘sell’ to agents, but I am not black, nor am I a man or the grandchild of a freed slave. And, to make things more complicated (I write with a laugh) I also created a side character who I adore. He is a gay man having an affair with a married man in the closet. Once inside Chris’s head, we see his heart, so full and kind. At the children’s library where he works, he is more patient and compassionate with the children then most of the strict, uptight southern mothers.

When we step outside our comfort zone and allow ourselves to see another viewpoint—to enter into the heart and mind of another human being—we accept the fact that there really are no chasms too great to justify our differences, our racism, our sexism, our superior judgements.

So my reaction to the agents who want authors to look like their main characters is this: Give us a chance. If a writer does a lot of research, like a documentary journalist, there is no location too far, or background too different, to write about. We would not have Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (as Michael Larsen, Co-Founder of the SFWC so kindly pointed out to me) or The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,or even the JK Rowling Harry Potter series.

To write Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel and the one I pitched at the SFWC, I returned to Italy, I travelled four times to Hawaii, and I researched WW11 documents regarding northern California internment camps for the elite of the German, Italian and Japanese forces to await trial. So much research went into this book that called to me simply from a conversation with a dying old man I once loved. Our conversation in Tuscany was one where he pondered how his life would have evolved, had he followed his heart, and not his fear, after the War. If he had married his true love, what would have happened? Another inspiration for the novel came from conversations with an 89-year-old German woman whose father was high up in the SS. She, her mother and father were sent to a Northern California camp after the War…Both stories merged in my consciousness and birthed the idea behind Between Thoughts of You. It is the story that called to me. It is the story that only I could tell. And it is one fueled by the power of love, the destructive forces of fear, and the dying desire to follow one’s heart.

These are universal truths no matter sex, sexual orientation, or ethnic background—for the characters & the writer. 🙂

If you enjoyed this conversation, you may also be interested in the following articles:

When Authors Create Title Characters of the Opposite Sex, HuffPost.

The Four Rs of Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender Writers Digest.

Whose Life is it Anyway? Novelists Have Their Say on Cultural Appropriation The Guardian.

Should Authors Write Characters Outside Their Race? The Good Man Project.






Breaking Through Resistance


Resistance is a “Force of Nature”, a Universal Law, like gravity, according to author Steven Pressfield. In his book, The War of Art, he explains how resistance appears to everyone through fear, procrastination, distraction, anxiety, thoughts of not being worthy or good enough, etc. Steven writes that we all have our own unique creative genius, but this force called resistance often keeps us from expressing it. It’s the force that keeps us from changing careers, running a marathon, writing our novel, starting a business, even falling in love.

Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday replayed her 2013 interview with Steven this week, as his 15th novel, The Knowledge, hits book stores. Clearly, Steven is not slowing down or  giving in to resistance. Here is what he has learned in the 40+ years of tackling this force:

Resistance is strongest as we approach the precipice of our dreams, or are on the verge of growing spiritually closer to the highest version of ourselves. Watch this amazing short video clip as Steven describes “The Six Things We Resist Most in Life.”  

If this clip doesn’t launch, here is the quick list of where resistance hits most:

  1. The launching of any entrepreneurial venture (profit or nonprofit).
  2. Any diet or health regime, especially an activity to tighten abdominals.
  3. Any program of spiritual advancement.
  4. Any program to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction.
  5. Education of any kind, even in the endeavor to help others.
  6.  Any act that entails commitment of the heart, such as the decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship. ANY movement away from petty EGO-based viewpoint to something more noble, “to be generous, to be kind, to be open to love,” according to Steven, attracts much resistance.

To me, resistance is very much like the law of hiking long distances. If you’ve ever hiked for days with only a compass and a topo map, you know this law. The hike will be at its most treacherous point: raining, fog, encounters with wild animals, etc. a few moments before you find your way, or make the clearing that lights your path. That’s Resistance to me. And it requires that we just keep going. We just keep doing what we are meant to do to grow, to evolve spiritually, to embody love, to create art, to fulfill a goal; any goal.

Those dreams that are the dearest to us ignite the loudest resistance due to this Universal Law. The good news is that since resistance is a force of nature, that means the voices in our heads saying we are not enough: ARE NOT US. They do not represent our souls, our highest selves. Resistance is an outside force must be pushed through, faced, in order to rise to a higher level of being, a higher level of consciousness, to LIVE our Purpose. To face resistance, we just simply have to “put our ass where our hearts want to be,” as Steven puts it, meaning, just do it. If you want to write, write. If you want to love someone, push aside your EGO and just love him or her. If you want to start a company, keep taking baby steps and start it. If you don’t know what you want to do, just meditate and start dreaming and exploring what you like in life without judgement. 

When I heard Steven Pressfield’s Super Soul Sunday interview, SO many bells went off.

Steven, who has written 15 books, as well as screenplays, said he, too, felt resistance his whole life. It took him nearly 20 years before he began earning any money from his writing. It took many years before he allowed his writing to be his vocation rather than his avocation—meaning before he just started writing every damn day. It required a shift in thinking. A push through resistance. He had to mentally embrace that he was a professional writer and each morning just go to his desk and sit his ass where his heart wanted to be. Once he started writing, all fear vanished as he entered the Universal flow of being exactly where he was supposed to be to create art, to be a conduit of something greater than himself. If you’ve ever lost yourself in creating something, you know what that feels like. Time floats by. You are so in the zone. You forget yourself, your troubles, time, and you focus on being a conduit of creation. It’s a dreamy state to be in.

I could so relate. Listening to this interview last night, I realized that I had major resistance to push through. I hadn’t written a word in my next novel since May. In early May I had flown my mother-in-law in town to watch the boys and I spent a week away writing every day. I had accomplished so much. Then my mom died. I returned on my birthday at the end of May, with summer approaching, I allowed myself to focus on my boys; their activities, and earning as much money as I could via journalism articles and teaching yoga. But at the end of the day, it was resistance in the form of distraction, fear, the need to be the perfect mom, the need to prove that I can take care of myself financially, the need to not feel, as I was filled with grief that I couldn’t allow out.

“Resistance is the highest as we come closest to manifesting our purpose.” It’s so true.

Last night, in a quiet house, with the boys in London, I picked up Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel, and started writing. Soon as I was back in the zone again.

If you are encountering resistance, just do the thing you fear. Just do it, without thinking too much about it.

Steven says resistance occurs whenever we are close to evolving in any way. So we resist allowing love in. We resist committing to marriage. We resist being compassionate, kind and giving when it means a friendship will deepen into something meaningful. We pause after we commit to starting a new career. We allow ourselves to get stuck. Why? Because that means we would evolve into the person we ultimately already are. We would reflect our highest self. Resistance is a force of nature that occurs as we approach this significant step onto the path of our growth.

Just do it. Sit at the chair and write. Sit by the easel and paint. Call the girl. Show up. Keep going. Cook that souffle. Take a class. Go on the interview. What do you have to lose?

Love & Light ~

Laura xo

First Creative Writer’s Conference…with Kids in Tow!


I’m writing this post from my hotel room in San Diego at the La Jolla Writer’s Conference. What an amazing two days so far! At first I almost cancelled coming, as I didn’t have a sitter Friday and Sunday I’m throwing a birthday party for my youngest munchkin..So, not only would I need to bring my children along Friday and part of Saturday, I wouldn’t have the extra time and attention needed to throw a perfect birthday party back in LA on Sunday. You dads out there might not get this…but man, don’t you moms know that need to throw a perfect party? 🙂 I could spend hours arranging flowers, cleaning house, making cupcakes etc. even for 6-year-olds. It must be a southern thing…I’m trying to recover from this.

So, it’s clear that I need to let go of that perfect parenting bug I’ve been bitten by. AND, I’ve realized that it was a wise decision to go to my first creative writer’s conference and let my kiddos tag along. Why? Because how often does my life revolve around them?  From soccer games and practices, to violin lessons, homework, concerts, doctor visits, etc.—I’m at their beckon call. And it struck me, as a single mom writing a novel, that it’s okay to ask my boys to come along and sacrifice some of their agenda in order to support me and my work. So that’s what we did. It was no problem.  My 12-year-old babysat my just-turned 6-year-old while I attended two lectures Friday. They watched a movie and I garnered amazing advice. It was a win-win. Instead of going to the networking event Friday evening, the three of us hit the pool, had a yummy dinner, rented a good movie and snuggled. Saturday morning started at 6 a.m. for me and I raced from lecture to events all day with a lunch break at the pool with my boys. My nanny picked them up this afternoon and took them back to LA for me, so luckily, I was able to participate in all the afternoon lectures and even my own terrifying pitch session, where I described my novel to two agents and a filmmaker and screenwriter—talk about frightening! I’m still speechless at their responses, encouragement and requests to read my work. I’m so filled with gratitude and excitement for next steps. 🙂

So, I have a few things to say about this experience:

First, my years interviewing experts as a parenting editor suggested this —but I now know without a doubt—that it’s good for children to see and support their parents working toward goals. This is especially true of single parents. If all children see are moms sacrificing their identities, dreams and goals for their children, these children may grow up with a sense of self importance, a false sense of entitlement and little patience for cooperation or compromise—not to mention out-dated views on spousal roles.

Secondly: WOW the writers, film makers, poets, agents, publicists, attorneys at this conference have been amazing!  Their willingness to give their time, insights and support have been invaluable to me. I haven’t been to one lecture that didn’t provide incredible information and inspiration. I have a lot of advice to digest from the business of publishing and negotiating contracts, to writing the perfect query and synopsis, to marketing strategies.

It’s a lot to cover. And that’s not even touching on the part that I love most: creating and how to keep those negative voices at bay that can stall the writing process. I’ve gotten a lot of support at this conference. I love the writers that I’ve met. I’m inspired by their honesty and their bravery. Each one is an artist who is baring his/her soul to some degree. In order to write well, a person must “find those tender places,” as Patti Callahan Henry,  a New York Times best-selling author, eloquently explained today. It requires cutting off the fear of being good enough and being able to close the door on that negative critic inside that worries about what others will think. And in doing so, we can keep working and getting better at our craft, while finding our unique voice as writers. I loved what Callahan Henry said today: “Our voice is buried in that compost pile from our youth.” The best writers bravely go there. And clearly, Henry does this. I picked up many books by this southern writer, and am excited to read all of them. I’m half-way through her latest: The Stories We Tell, and know I won’t go to bed until I’m done. I’m immersed in this Savannah-based tale and want to learn the truth lingering between the couple who seem to have it all…Her characters are compelling and believable, who live in a world that invites me in to sit a while and marinate in their truth—which may just resonate with my own. And that’s all a writer can hope for isn’t it?

If you’re a creative writer or artist, please chime in. What helps you find your voice? What helps you stay on track? How do you keep negative voices at bay and continue creating when the world—or your world—might be telling you to do “better” things with your time? I look forward to hearing from you. x

NV’s Book Choices for the Holidays

Woman reading a book on the sofa

The gift of a good book just can’t be underestimated! Here are some of my favorite reads, and tops on my must-read list. (And, don’t worry, NV’s children and young adult picks are coming out soon.) But isn’t it important to treat ourselves during the holidays, too? I think of it like oxygen on the airplane. You have to first breathe into your own emergency oxygen container before securing one onto your child, right? Similarly, don’t forget to put yourself on your holiday list with one of these inexpensive splurges. So, while you’re  buying Santa’s gifts for your cherubs, pick up one of these for yourself! Think of it as momma’s indulgence: put the kiddos in bed, snuggle with a blanket, drink some coco (or other beverage) and drift far, far away.

1. Heft, a novel, by Liz Moore

Why I love this book: It’s remarkable when an author can make you feel compassion for extremely flawed characters. We come to see the morbidly obese ex-professor as the beautiful person that he is. Tragically caged by his mind and his habits in his house—we begin to see that he is one of the thoughtful, kind, compassionate souls the world needs more of. The depressed, alcoholic mother and her baseball fanatic son become people of worth. The co-dependent son is wise before his years. He doesn’t realize his true strength and courage may be off the baseball field. His mother, fighting lupus and addictions, has a kindness tangled beneath her depression, pain and booze. The young pregnant maid without a college degree, we come to see as courageous and street-smart. They all have gifts that would be rarely recognized in the real world or through our lens coated with societal constraints and judgements. Any book that can open our hearts and make us re-evaluate quick, stereotypical thinking, is high on my list. It’s a great read for teens and adults.

2. Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler

I have read every book by Anne Tyler, and could easily recommend her latest or one of my other favorites by the Baltimore-based author—such as Back When We Were Grownups and Breathing Lessons. But this particular book is a great one for single moms, or any of us who have stayed the course in our lives and with our families, but sometimes fantasize catapulting a way out—even if just for a brief period.

Married with three almost-grown children, Delia Grinstead leaves her family’s beach house for an errand. Her bags aren’t packed, her next move not pre-meditated, but she just keeps going. It’s as if her feeling of liberation moves her forward and her mind must catch up later. She settles into a new life, that most would not find that exciting, but it is her own. She is in control of her life, her decisions and her time—and she is no longer reminded daily of how she is taken for granted. Oddly, even though most of us would never make this choice, it’s hard not to like this character and feel some understanding for her bizarre, steadfast “crack” that pushed her forward and onward—leaving her older children with her husband.

3. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
This remarkable example of the healing power of forgiveness tops my ‘must read list.’ I first saw an interview with Louis Zamperini, the champion of Unbroken, on CBS Sunday Morning Memorial Day weekend. (Watch the clip here, it’s worth it!) I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since, as I  know that holding on to your pain, grudges and toxic memories only hurts you. Forgiving those who have hurt you, frees you to live a joyous life. It’s easy to say, very hard to do. So hopefully, Unbroken will be in Santa’s bag for me!

If you haven’t heard about this book, it’s about the life of Louis Zamperini, a young Olympian runner who was shot down in  the Pacific near Japan during WWII. Imprisoned in a brutal camp for two years, Zamperini endured horrific torture and starvation. His story, written by Hillenbrand, shows how he managed to turn away from abusing alcohol to numb his post-traumatic stress and nightmares—to a lifetime of forgiveness—even forgiving the sadistic camp director. Just amazing.

4. Super Brain, by Deepak Chopra, M.D. & Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.

I got inspired to read my first Chopra book after doing his 21 Day Meditation Challenge. During the challenge, I had a few ‘aha moments’. One, is that hearing “you are a transplendent being” or “worthy of love” every day—makes you believe it. And, finally, focussing on your inner beauty, strength and kindness helps you realize that you deserve health, love and abundance in your life.

Intellectually, you may think that you deserve these things, but emotionally, you may hold different beliefs—even those not spoken. Perhaps neglect or abuse from childhood, abuse during marriage, or other toxic memories have made you feel lesser than. This book explains how to harness your mind to overcome these issues, control your thoughts, and lessen anxiety to live a more joyful life.

As a good friend said to me: “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

5. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

This is on my “must-read list” and I’m happy to report that one of my son’s “bought” this for my Christmas present today! I can’t wait to read J.K.’s latest just for pure escapism during the holidays. As a former London resident, I’ve developed a fondness for quaint English villages and the quirky, gossipy residents who typically live there. I can’t wait to indulge in this book that follows the aftermath of a young man’s death and how the families in this idyllic village don’t lead such idyllic lives.

So tell me, what’s on your list?