Welcome to my official website. Here you will find information about me and my books, along with upcoming news.

Friday, December 16, 2016

December Book Sale

Winter is upon us, and that means it's time to stock up on some wintertime reading.

For the rest of the month, you can get paperback and hardcover copies of my book, Black Tree, for 25% off at this link.

Enjoy reading and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Pictorial Look at Black Tree - II.III, III.III

II.III is a flashback to the time when Julia lived in the Tempe/Scottsdale, and III.III shows her move from there to Prescott. So here I have a few images from ASU, which is where she went to school and also worked. I took these pictures in May 2013 when I was graduating from there myself.

This is a structure on the grassy space above the library.

One of the buildings near there. While ASU has many buildings in the modern style, there are also several with these scholarly pillars. 

The entrance to Hayden Library, where Julia must have, as a student of history, spent plenty of time.

Right above the library again, you can see that same structure from the first picture centered in between the pillars here. It's a nice artistic effect, something to be viewed at the exact right angle as you walk down the stairs to get to the library's entrance.

A view of University Street emptier than you will ever see it:

Just above ASU is Tempe Town Lake, where you can go for a boat ride or walk along the paths beside the water. Here is one of the famous Phoenix sunsets, more yellow and less pink than usual.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Pictorial Look at Black Tree - I.I, I.III

I have been meaning for a while to start showing pictures of some of the places I feature in Black Tree. Many of you are Arizonans, but for everyone else the landscape is perhaps less familiar. And even if you live in the state, there may be certain places that I wrote about that you haven't yet visited. 

I begin with the first chapter. For the general descriptions of desert landscape with saguaros, here are some views from around the Cave Creek area (that is, just slightly north of Phoenix). Note the variety of textures and plants. 

There are some teddy bear cholla in this view; they're one of my favorites. 

Moving on to I.III, Julia describes Montezuma Well. Here is a look at the ruins through the fence and another look without the fence. Notice how ground level is above the dwellings.

Here you can see that the cliff dwellings stand above the well.

And here is a closer look at the water, which is both wide and deep.

You can see here some of the steps along the path. They're made of stone and cement and they're not entirely consistent in structure or layout--but their neutral colors and even their curving placement do help to blend in with the environment. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Shelf Unbound Competition

I am pleased to announce that Black Tree made it as a runner-up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition.

To know that, out of all of the entries, my book received consideration is an honor. I am most happy to receive this news and to share it with you. If you haven't yet had the opportunity to buy my book, paperback and hardcover copies are currently 30% off at this link. Thank you so much for following me on this journey.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 12

Click here to read Part 11.

Black Tree

Officially, my book has been out for about three months now. So it's been making its way into readers' hands (or tablets, if they opt for digital). I also have plans to do a series of photo posts showing some of the locations I wrote about, in case anyone wants a visual for them. The first of those should be up within a week.

The Manuscript in Progress

My first work on this book was strangely organized. I started out writing the beginning bits in order, and then I let it sit for a while. Now I'm moving into what you might call the "agitated additions." This is the phase where I'll have a sentence float into my head that I have to write down because I know it'll end up leading to a whole scene. Sometimes as soon as I go to bed I have to reach for my phone to type something in, or even get up for a notebook to write something out. This period of the process is less peaceful but also yields some of the best results of it all. So I am getting excited again about this book now that I'm starting to put more focus into it once more.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 11

Click here to read Part 10.

Black Tree

As you know, you can now buy Black Tree in digital, paperback, and hardcover. So I'm going to take this moment to advertise for my Goodreads page. If you use Goodreads, you can add my book on there and rate it or review it if you like. You can also follow my page and ask me questions about the book. Of course, if you don't use Goodreads, you can still ask me questions in the comments below posts, by email (see the Contact page), or on Twitter (@deannaskaggs). And don't forget to click through the different pages on this site for more information; in particular, you'll want to check out the Q&A page.

The Manuscript in Progress

At first, I thought that this book was going to be more traditionally arranged, more linear than Black Tree. Now, though, I see that that won't be the case. It's going to have its own way of doing things. I haven't been adding much to it right now, but I have been thinking more about it. Lately, I have been contemplating the following: cooking, painting, and water. Oh, yes, I am going to be doing so much with water in this book. So much water. And because I love to describe the Arizona landscape, this book will visit a few of the wonderful places that didn't feature in Black Tree.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Labor Day Book Sale

For Labor Day weekend only, you can get the paperback and hardcover versions of my book at 20% off. The sale is on now through Monday, so click the book cover below to go get your copy now.

Monday, August 22, 2016

All Editions Now Available Everywhere

You have lots of options, everyone. Black Tree is now available in paperback, hardcover, and as an eBook. So take your pick of what you like best. A simple paperback, a sturdy hardcover, or an on-the-go eBook.

You can also buy it from your favorite source. I recommend Lulu. Or you can buy from Apple iBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, and a few other places. Remember, Book Depository offers free shipping worldwide; at the moment, they're only carrying the paperback, but the hardcover should be up, too, soon.

If you're an eBook-lover, you're in luck: Barnes & Noble has the NOOK edition on sale right now. Click here to get it now.

And if you'd like a taste of the book before you buy it, click here to read the first chapter.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 10

Click here to read Part 9.

This series is supposed to show what is going in my writing world, so here it is:

Cookies. Book cookies.

In a way, they mean nothing, this I know. However, I have always been intrigued and ecstatic about the idea of book cookies, and I've always wanted my own. In some way, to have your book cover on a cookie is like confirmation of publication. So here are my dears:

Aren't they wonderful? They're simply a symbol of celebration. They're not something you use for marketing or sell as merchandise. They're just something to help you celebrate with the people who helped bring your book about.

And look how happy my book is with all of its cookies, the miniature images of black trees.

To dine with these is something special.

Oh, yes, and an update on editions. Black Tree is available everywhere in paperback, in hardcover on Lulu and everywhere else soon, and as an eBook on Lulu, Amazon, iTunes, and everywhere else soon. Click here to buy it now.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Waiting for the Digital Edition?

Just a quick update to let you know that Black Tree is now available as an eBook. I know a lot of people have been interested in the digital edition.

It will be available soon across the usual eBook platforms: Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble nook, Apple iBooks, etc. I'll let you know when that's the case (it can take a couple of weeks but will likely be much sooner). However, you can buy the eBook right now from Lulu. Enjoy.

Update: the eBook is also on Apple iBooks now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Want to Read an Excerpt?

First comes the title, then comes the cover, and now comes the excerpt.

That's right, you can now read the first chapter of Black Tree right here. In this chapter, you'll get an introduction to the three narrators and start to get a feel for the world they live in.

You can use one of the page links on the right or you can simply click here to read the chapter. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 9

Click here to read Part 8.

I have already shared elsewhere my quote upon holding my published book in my hands for the first time: "This is creepy." Not the cover. I knew what the cover would look like, so I was just concerned about it printing right--and since it did, I only felt relived when I saw it. No, it was flipping through the pages that felt so strange. I saw my words, the words that I had written, here on these pale pages.

Years ago, I used to sometimes look at the shelves in Barnes & Noble to look for the "S" section (since fiction is, of course, organized alphabetically according to the author's last name). I would find where "Skaggs" would go and try and picture what it would be like to see my name there, in between the rows of random books, so many kinds and varieties written by so many people. It was hard to imagine, so intangible.

Likewise, even though I've printed out portions of my book and even the whole thing from time to time, it was very unreal to hold it in actual published form, wholly tangible. Something I can take my usual terrible snapshots of:

At first, I was afraid. Heading to the post office and leaving with the slim cardboard box, I felt sick. I was convinced it hadn't printed right. I felt . . . shy, I suppose, to even have it printed. But oh, you'll never have that experience again--that experience of opening that first box for the first time. Anxiety turns into relief, which turns into excitement.

For a while, I was finished--finished with writing the book, that is. Now I am at the beginning again--the beginning of bringing this book out.

You can buy my book, Black Tree, at this link.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Title & Cover Reveal

Eight years ago I wrote the beginnings of this novel, without even realizing that those words would eventually turn into a novel. I was aiming for a short story but quickly realized that whatever I was writing was bigger than just a few pages--so I let it sit while I slowly added to it during my college years, awaiting the time in which I would be able to devote more focus to it. That time came and I finished my book and now it is at last in print. So now I bring to you my book, Black Tree:

           To stare at the ocean and yet to crave the desert. To leave home to wander endlessly across the land and yet to be glad. To watch heartache fade away with the new rising of the sun.
            To see the greatest depths of despair outlined in the very sky and earth—this is the fate of three women unalike in all ways except in their struggles. Abigail is the youngest, Julia is the oldest, and the third has neither age nor name. Their place is the past and the present and the future, and their landscape is the Southwest, which they hold in dearest regard.

            But to love the land, will that save them or will it be the thing that holds them back from life?

As this book grew and developed, I wanted it to be something Southwestern unhindered by genre constraints. Don't get me wrong, there are great Westerns out there and wonderful books about the West, border issues, questions of race and culture, and such. But I wanted to present my Southwest--the book that I wanted to write in the setting that I wanted to place it. And my book has nothing to do with these usual Western or Southwestern topics. It's like when you see a delicate and pretty painting of a cactus: it isn't in the usual Western style of art and yet it shares the visuals. It belongs to the same world but is its own genre.

You can buy my book now at lulu.com/spotlight/deannaskaggs. It will also be available on Amazon and other sites in a few weeks, but I will be honest with you here and explain why I ask that you purchase straight from Lulu instead: I receive a much lower cut if you buy the book from other sites. There will also be hardcover and digital versions coming, if you prefer either of those; I will let you know as soon as those are available.

Thank you so much for letting me share this debut with you, and I hope you're as excited as I am.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 8

Click here for Part 7.

The Book

Some things take longer to complete than you had originally thought--and sometimes also you have less time to work on certain things than you had thought you would. I thought the book would be out by now--but it isn't. And that's just the way of it.

The Manuscript

I have this idea to include, in every book I write, at least a fragment of a short myth/legend that floats around in my head. It's already in the first book, in short and simple form. I'm writing it out in a little more detail for the next one--and then from there I'd like to try and include at least a quick reference to it with each subsequent book, just for the fun of it.

Actually, I wrote out the first "more detailed" version of this little legend while on the drive back from Phoenix one day (obviously I wasn't driving). There is something about flying across the land in the car and watching the landscape glide by that inspires this character in my mind. For this particular book, I want to connect this legend to other imagery that the main character is experiencing--dream imagery, in particular. I'm really developing in my head the idea of some magical realism elements here--I want to try something different. In a way, I want mythology to take over the story, for the real world to slowly fade in favor of the dream world.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 5

This is Part 5 (click here to read Part 4) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the ninth and tenth pairings and the conclusion.

Just as it is necessary to have a favorite in the candy bar world, so must I also have one in the gourmet world. At the beginning of conversations about chocolate, people always ask me what my favorite kind is or which is the best. I don't like choosing favorites, but I must have an answer prepared for so inevitable a question. I have mentioned E. Guittard and Theo, but my usual default answer has become Amano. Amano is everything a chocolatier ought to be, with the added benefit of being another American company. As with Theo, everyone to whom I have introduced Amano chocolate has shared my interest. Amano is artistic expression and attention to detail. All Amano dark chocolate bars come in glossy, black card boxes with a rectangular space reserved for a piece of artwork. Always, this artwork matches the tone of the bar inside. The Montanya bar features a muddy-colored painting of a tree, like something out of a lost and recently remembered adventure. Turn to the back of the box for a note from chocolatier Art Pollard about the making of the bar and for a description of the Venezuela plantation where he sourced this particular bar's cacao. Not of the least interest are the tasting notes Amano always provides, apricot and marshmallow in Montanya's case. These tasting notes prove helpful in examining the chocolate.

People are usually surprised to learn how many flavor notes chocolate can have, and Amano crafts their chocolate to express these notes so well that one person I gave Amano to thought that it actually was flavored, not plain, chocolate. That fullness of flavor is the beauty of Amano. Further, all of their dark chocolate bars are a standard level of 70% cacao, meaning that there will be no frightening bitterness for the uninitiated. Marshmallow does not sound like a cultured flavor, but marshmallowy sweetness here means something entirely different than in Rocky Mountain's chocolate. It is sweet for a dark chocolate, but with its own kind of sweetness, a sweetness that only helps make the chocolate approachable.

As diverse as chocolate can be, books are probably more so. While Amano has a wide appeal, there is probably no book that matches Amano's appeal and critical acclaim. But that matters little: these are my personal pairings, which will never be the same for any two people, even if there may be some overlaps. My progression to name Charlotte Bronte as a favorite author was similar to my naming of Amano; when people ask this question, they certainly do not want to hear Stephenie Meyer's name and likely not even Tolkien's. But Charlotte Bronte I can talk about: even if a person has never read her, he is likely to have seen one of the many movie versions of Jane EyreJane Eyre I speak of most often because Jane Eyre is all from Charlotte Bronte most people seem to talk about, as if, like her sister Emily, she had no other novels except the one. But that is okay for now: Jane Eyre I like. I read it for the first time in middle school and loved what a happy ending it had. Then, though I have never studied the book in a class, the world started throwing words into the discussion like "feminism," "fantasy," "Gothic," and "religious." At my own pace, I saw which words work and for what reasons; I analyzed something I had previously only enjoyed and thus enjoyed it the more. Now I delight that I will never be able to stop pondering meanings. If Jane Eyre were an Amano bar, it could be the Montanya, but might find a better pairing in the Cuyagua, which has feminine, fruity notes something like banana and also a pepperiness. Both are soft, vivid, and ultimately happy.

If there is a chocolate bar that made so much of an impression on me so long ago that I am wrong not to have tasted it since, it is the 100% Criollo bar from Pralus. It is fast approaching four years since my affair with this bar; four years ago, I had not tasted Amano, Theo, Kallari, and Valrhona, and had only just barely had my first Michel Cluizel chocolate. At this time of beginnings, the 100% offering from Pralus was completely new to me and I responded only with love and fervor. I have reason to believe, from the positive comments about Pralus I have since hears, that the bar truly is as wonderful as my memory of it, but how can I know for certain? All my evidence is in the comments I made four years ago. I know that the chocolate came first to my mouth with bitterness, but much unlike the Bonnet 100%, the bitterness faded into something cooler, sweeter, and even fresher. Instead of stopping at one or two pieces, I had four small squares, identifying their primary taste as chocolate. I wonder now if, today, I would pick up more flavor notes. But I may not have been wrong in this assessment, anyway: the Criollo beans, usually considered the best variety of cacao beans, from which this bar is made are fairly delicate in flavor and do produce the flavor we generally call "chocolate." The difference in the type of cacao beans alone may explain why I hated the one bar and loved the other.

Love. That is the identifier that can supposedly detect whether someone has read Wuthering Heights or just watched the movie: supposedly, they will sigh over the love story only in the latter case. I consider the situation more complicated. There is a love story to find even in the intensity of the Pralus bar, as there is in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's complicated Victorian novel. I certainly found it in both, though both were, respectively, my first 100% bar and a book I first read at the fairly young age of twelve. Love is an easier emotion to latch onto. I did not dwell on the initial bitterness of the chocolate, and I took the dark, Gothic elements and waves of hatred and blackness in the novel simply in stride. I let the story and the characters entertain me until I was capable, when I studied the book in college, to consider such things as symbols and analogies within the pages. This is why I wish for the chance to revisit the chocolate: I know I would bring more to the experience now, and how much better must it then be if it was so wonderful then?

Well, if I see one at a store, I will surely snatch it up instantly--and maybe someday, since I hardly expect this sighting to happen, I will purchase one online. Until then, the memory sustains me. It is the memory of the embodiment of the heart of the passion of the thing we call chocolate. It is chocolate at a full point in consciousness. And it is only through acknowledging all of the things that I love, all of the manifestations, however loose, of chocolate, that I can call even a single experience like this a positive one. Like the first long book I read or the first book I liked in defiance of critical commentary, any chocolate I eat becomes a brick that helps build my house of understanding and any that I enjoy becomes a part of a long chain of lovingly esteemed links.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 4

This is Part 4 (click here to read Part 3) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the seventh and eight pairings. 

Some things that come from the familiar place of memory take longer to define as special. A not so atypical American, I grew up around Hershey's bars, Kit Kats, Reese's Cups, Snickers bars, and Butterfingers. But it wasn't until I began making friends with the couture chocolate brand that I wanted to have ties to this Old World, too; I have no desire to be a chocolate snob, so I needed to keep friendships in all the categories. Kit Kats may be far from the luxurious and sensual sides of chocolate, and may not even contain the highest quality chocolate or wafers. But those shiny, red packages are hard to ignore. While a solid chocolate can be defined by the quality of the "snap" it makes when broken, Kit Kats have their own version of the sound, which comes accompanied by the primal pleasure of personally shattering the neat row of wafers. The luster of the chocolate coating each one is dull, and the buttery Hershey's aroma, also belonging to many other candies, does not interest me. But I do enjoy wafers. The Kit Kat's crunch is more hollow and less crumbly than some, with the chocolate adding the necessary element of softness to the whole. Contentedly, I ignore imperfections, thinking only about the balance that even Hershey's chocolate, layered just thick enough, adds to the wafer layers. A condescending chocolate connoisseur may overlook things like Kit Kats, but I do not.

Imperfections do not have to ruin a personal experience, and outside criticism does not have to affect my personal opinion. Driven by curiosity, I picked up Twilight a couple of weeks before the first movie was released; completely alone in my reading experience and not discussing anything until after I was done, I finished the series quickly and I connected with it. I connected with its peculiar tone, the things of affection toward nature, and the general optimism of the pages. Some people like to look for "literary elements" in Twilight; others love to condemn it--indeed, they seem to talk about it as much as the people who actually like it. But I care to do neither. I just like to pretend I am the only person who knows about this book and read it in the same bubble I started in. It's my Kit Kat; it's one of the handful of modern books I very much like, and it's the one I will continue to like even if everyone else stops. If a trend began to dip Kit Kats in Nutella before eating them, I would probably try it along with the crowd. But when the trend ended and most people abandoned their Kit Kats, still I would remain with mine. If something truly does act as a simple pleasure, it will remain such.

What may be easy to forget is that not everything that is exactly opposite to candy bars and popular novels is going to be enjoyable for most people. While the first 100% cacao bar, which I will address in more detail later, I tasted was rather nice, the second was not. It was shocking. It was frightening. It was bitter. It was Bonnat's 100% bar. Just previously, I had had their 75% Trinite, which was on the bitter side, but did not cross over into the inedible. The 100% did. A note of spiciness began as it melted and continued to build more and more intensity. Though I Googled the bar to read comments about it and found that there are indeed some human species who enjoy it, I was not one of these. My stung mouth only wanted to cover up the flavor with something else. An expensive bar this certainly had been, but I either gave it away or put it in a recipe.

That experience taught me of diversity and personal preference, which are two things that, as an English Literature major, I cannot forget. There are many things I read for classes that I do not personally like, like The Canterbury Tales. Although I only read three sections of it, I have no desire to read more. The language tends to be too distant and the setting is far away from my professed favorite, the nineteenth century. Add that I also had to read "The Wife of Bath" in untranslated Middle English; while this was admittedly less painful than eating two pieces of the Bonnet bar, still I do not plan to read the entire book this way. I will leave that adventure to others.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 3

This is Part 3 (click here to read Part 2) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the fifth and sixth pairings. 

Uniting the two [pleasure and criticism] is ideal. Something that can exist in both a casual atmosphere and a critical one, depending on the approach you use at the moment, is always satisfying. One of my favorite bars to share is Theo's Creamy Milk Chocolate, which is a 45% cacao. This percentage, at the upper end for a milk chocolate, adds depth to the chocolate, yet does not detract from the creaminess the title promises. Therefore, the chocolate lingers in the mouth like a dark chocolate tends to do, but still evokes the same sweet approachability of milk chocolates. If intimidation keeps some people away from the gourmet kinds of chocolate bars, Theo advantageously does not contain this evocation. Unlike a brand like Michel Cluizel, Theo is easy to find at your local Whole Foods--perhaps because it is one of the small group of U.S. bean to bar companies. These companies are involved with chocolate making straight from cacao beans themselves to the final product, as opposed to other companies who begin their work with someone else's chocolate and mold it, blend it, etc. With a classic, light blue packaging, Theo's Creamy Milk Chocolate, instead of daunting you, invites you to partake. This particular bar has a firmer texture and is more full-bodied than most milk chocolates, and its creamy sweetness is somehow also rich; it tastes like honey and cream seen through a semi-dark lens. Because of its middle-of-the-range traits, I have presented it to milk and dark chocolate lovers alike, and each time, their enthusiasm allows me to experience the joy of my first time eating it, too.

Although arguably still too new to be categorized as a classic, like Theo is still a relatively new company, there are some of us who undoubtedly place J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in that category. I did, after all, take a college class in which this epic and Beowulf were our main texts. Before that, though, I spent many hours pouring over the thousand pages of adventure. The ability to translate into both a critical circle and a group setting means that I can analyze, as I did for the college class, the Anglo-Saxon influence on Tolkien's story, but I can also chat with a group of friends about why Galadriel and Faramir are two of my favorite Tolkien characters. It all comes under the scope of what I love about Tolkien's piece.

There are some aspects of my journeys that I do not forsake. Because books and chocolate are both atmospheric, they can transport you backwards in time. Arizona is not the location for chocolate shops, which is why I generally name World Market and Whole Foods as my favorite places to find chocolate. Godiva and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory are the main shops to find in this area, although both of them focus most on confections. Yet Rocky Mountain is fun. Just walking inside the shop, the confectionery chocolate aroma breathes on you with accents of vanilla and nostalgia. Even though Rocky Mountain is a chain, there is a small establishment feel to the company that sets me at ease. Even though I am often too busy trying new chocolates to keep buying new ones I have tasted before, I have an inexplicable affection for Rocky Mountain's milk chocolate. Unwrapping a bar of it brings out the same sweet scent of the shops. Its taste is light on chocolate and high on caramel; melting slower than many milk chocolates, it is not as greasy as, say, a Hershey's bar. Its creaminess has a depth that almost reminds me of the Theo bar. Although I generally eat small amounts of chocolate, I have a hard time making this milk chocolate last too long.

It's out of affection that I eat it. I find it tasteful because I have been eating it for years. It's comfortable, like the stories in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Before I read this book, my family rented the movie to watch, then rented it again, and then again. Sometimes I'm not even sure why we liked the movie so much, or why I ended up rereading the book a few times, too. I suppose part of it was the sense of family and home. The four March sisters go through their times of poverty and frustration with each other, but then return to warmth and love. Although I now firmly consider the book part of the vague "children's classics" category, at the time, I responded to the hints of something more. It was very likely the longest book I had read, and its main character was also a reader and writer--an intellectual person. Occasionally, I will take this book up again to slowly ponder its gentleness and sweetness. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 2

This is Part 2 (click here to read Part 1) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the third and fourth pairings. 

It was desire for that which is not familiar that led me to the gold-bedecked Godiva store at Scottsdale Fashion Square. As I began considering chocolate as an entire field, I thought that high prices and gold packaging meant quality. Godiva was sitting right next to a jewelry store, after all, and the treatment of its products was not so different from that of the jewelry. Polish and poise decorated the gold boxes of chocolate, and the individual truffles sat like jewels underneath the glass by the register. I could spend several minutes savoring just one truffle. But I savored it because I knew it had a two or three dollar price tag and because, honestly, I had not tasted many other truffles at all. By the time I had tasted several other high-end brands, Godiva began to fail me. Their dark chocolate struck me as more sweet than dark, and the still-beautiful truffles and chocolates looked too perfect in their molds, mass-produced instead of artisan. Tasty to eat, but not worth the high prices. A chocolate can be beautiful to look at and yet not as beautiful to taste.

Disappointments like this hurt. At the same time that I exalted over Godiva, I was also reading historical novels from Liz Curtis Higgs. It was by randomness that I read the first one, Thorn in My Heart, but suspense, a good amount of historical setting, and a love story brought me quickly through the series that book started. I praised Liz's name above similar authors: she wrote very well, I said. Perhaps she does write well enough. I think she does: she manages to blend the historical facts into the story in a way that isn't showing off, and satisfies readers' desires for highly emotional stories. But with time, I grew a little bored. While she only had two historical novels when I began reading her, now there are six. I begin to sense the pattern of them, like Godiva's manufactured side. Suspense only means so much when you know it's coming. Probably I will read what Liz next publishes, just as I still wander into Godiva, but these experiences have become more transient than special.

Development is what keeps my attention from fading. My first bar by E. Guittard was their 91% Nocturne. I in fact approached it much like I did Godiva, not knowing very much about cacao percentages but, having never seen one so high as this, deciding that it must belong to an amazing chocolate. Fortunately, my naive assessment in this case turned out to be correct. I took the bar home and examined it: if it did prove to be special, I couldn't rush the experience. Unlike Godiva's heavy gold coloring, this bar was wrapped in black with a faded image of a cacao plantation in the background. Only the border had a gold sheen to it. The grown-up elegance suddenly intimidated me, and I feared that I had indeed acted naively by thinking this chocolate would be the most delicious I had ever tasted. I feared it would be more than I could handle, bitter and unwieldy. The first piece I placed in my mouth did hit with a red, as of fruit or earth, and bitter taste, but that quickly dissipated into a divine smoothness, letting me experience for the first time what it was like for a chocolate to envelope your mouth and your entire mind. Every second brought the flavor to a new intensity; the chocolate was thick and rich and melted so smoothly and slowly, leaving a pleasant warmth in my mouth. I only needed the one piece, saving the rest for later. I was converted.

Not everything critics acclaim is necessarily difficult to approach. Many companies, like Cerreta Candy in Glendale, use Guittard chocolate either in baking or chocolate making. And while one or two novels by Wilkie Collins come under literary study, these can have appeal to modern audiences simply as fun mystery stories. It was from seeing clips from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based, loosely, on The Woman in White that I read the original Collins novel one summer. Its six hundred pages looked a bit much for a summer read, but I began it, anyway, since I knew I would probably never see the musical. Like any proper mystery, excitement of the moment made me forget the number of pages, and even long after I had finished the book, I thought about how kind a person Walter Hartwright was and about what social schemes the novel may have been exposing. Like the Nocturne bar, The Woman in White and, later, The Moonstone united pleasure and criticism into the same sphere. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 1

This is a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college (yes, I took a food writing class; it was wonderful and a lot of work). I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions, starting with the introduction and the first pairing. Other than breaking it up into pieces, I'm not planning on editing anything further from how I left it four years ago.

Is dark chocolate better than milk chocolate? "Is Virginia Woolf a better writer than George Eliot?" "What's the best chocolate?" "Who's your favorite author?"

Because of the interests I profess, I get questions of this nature often, responding to simply say that there is no answer. As long as I enjoy a book or chocolate, that is enough for me. Yet critics, myself included, constantly analyze and categorize. What I object to is making generalizations based on a single trait of deeming one product better than another even if both are enjoyable. For I find that all experiences, whether a single and isolated moment or one filled with vast depth, come together to make a balanced whole. Not all my chocolates need to be poetic, nor all my books immortally literary. For when, practicing my own criticism, I sub-divide both books and chocolate according to my enjoyment of them, I find that the categories overlap. There are some authors and chocolatiers who helped me better understand their fields; others I may look on simply with nostalgia, while still others I regard as exceedingly well balanced and well formed. Through the exploration of pairings like this, based on a common element that I receive from both the book and the chocolate, discoveries emerge and I begin to realize what exactly pleases me and my particular perspective.

Not everyone responds to the same elements of an object because no one has had exactly the same experiences. When I whisk by the shelves of Ghirardelli chocolate at World Market, I remember when the name of the company conjured not an image of card boxes, but of the bulk chunks of chocolate from Trader Joe's my family would buy when I was in elementary school. Ghirardelli was probably the most high-end chocolate I knew. The bulk pieces, much thicker than regular bars, we would break apart with a knife, sharing the slices while sitting at our tiny dining table. Years later, my mom and I discovered Ghirardelli anew, as it were, through the individually wrapped squares of Twilight Delight. I brought one to high school during my junior year almost every day, letting it sit in my bag waiting for me to tear open the packaging. Its mere name taught me to search for atmosphere: the twilight is cool and dark, like the chocolate, yet also not as intimidating as the full blackness of night. So, too, this chocolate was easy to eat, still retaining enough sweetness that it did not cross over into the realm of bitter. The reason for this mildness was its rather standard, for dark chocolate, 72% cacao content; percentages like this are, of course, the amount of product in the chocolate that actually comes from cacao beans. Naturally, percentages can say something about what a chocolate will be like, but mean nothing about its quality.

Somehow, despite my history with Ghirardelli, I constantly call into question my feelings toward the company. As the recognizable face that it is, I want to condemn it as less than artisan quality. But I can never denounce Ghirardelli: I still enjoy their plain bars. When I consider the books of Charles Dickens, I come to a similar controversy. There are parts of his writing that feel sometimes transparent: in Great Expectations, for instance, Pip suddenly spends a long time going to the theatre for no more apparent reason than that Dickens thought it might be an entertaining scene. When I look back on that book, it is the beginning and the ending that seem most important, though the middle is filled with words piled onto more words. Yet I probably need not complain: the beginning and ending, after all, are such that they never fade from memory. Miss Havisham, the abandoned bride and bitter old woman introduced early in the story, is alone worth the reading. The presence of Estella, who Miss Havisham helped to break Pip's heart, at the novel's conclusion creates a pleasant and lasting image. Dickens may be as familiar as Ghirardelli, but both can still deliver something.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 7

Click here for Part 6.

A quick and short update for this month.

The Book

There is little more to say this month. I've been working on publishing, and there isn't really too much more to do. I'm settling in on a cover I like, and finally editing together my final version of the book summary (I shared last time how difficult it has been for me to write the summary). So I've been using Lulu's Cover Designer, getting to know how that works. (Yes, I'm publishing through Lulu, which I might as well mention since you'll find out soon, anyway. There are advantages and disadvantages to all the different self-publishing companies, but I liked a lot of the things about Lulu and things have gone well with them so far.)

Once I've finished putting together everything, I will have to wait a few weeks to get my copy of the book in the mail so that I can approve it, make sure that everything printed right. So what I had been imagining as more of a spring release will be a summer release instead. I by no means have a release date for you (this is all new territory for me and, of course, sometimes you just don't know how long certain steps will take). But the time is definitely getting closer. I'll do a title and cover reveal with the summary once everything is all settled in.

The Manuscript

I just glanced at the manuscript for my next book. I've been writing it out on paper and then typing it up afterwards so that I have a way of tracking what I have so far. And I was somewhat surprised (since I haven't looked at it in a while) that it's already almost fifty pages. And I was also surprised that I like it. I want to do some things with it that I didn't do in the first book, while also maintaining some of the same feel (that is, what I want to be known for as a writer). Because, after all, I'd like for all my books to be able to offer something a little different from one another, for there to be something different that they each achieve or provide. That way I will feel like I have a body of work rather than simply a certain number of books.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 6

Click here to read Part 5.

It would seem that I have, essentially, caught up to the present with these posts. So now instead of explaining what I have been doing or thinking I will be writing down what I am doing or thinking.

My book is done. I've worked on content and language and length, and I've gone through to edit for grammar and typos. (It wouldn't hurt to go through once more, though, I suppose.) I have begun the process of self-publishing, and I've learned that much of this process is simply reading about how things are supposed to be done. There is so much that I didn't know about getting a book published.

I've found that not everyone I talk to even knows what an ISBN is (I did); I had to not only know what they are but also go and buy one (well, a few, actually). And then I was reading about copyrights, too; I never knew that you have to pay to register a copyright (your work automatically belongs to you, but registering your copyright is basically for legal records in case any issues every come up).

Then there is the proper formatting of your book. The cover. The back cover. Pictures (I still haven't had anyone take my author photo--I'm considering taking it myself but I suppose I'm a terrible photographer and really shouldn't). I need to get some nice business cards, too.

Oh, yes, and then there is the odd task of writing my book summary. Don't ask me why this is so incredibly difficult for me: it's my book, so it should be easy. But whenever I try and put something together, it's like trying to jam a nail through one of my fingers in the dark (as in, it hurts to do and yet you also can't quite figure out how to do it because you can't see). I've written some different versions and I'm trying to see what's best so that I can edit that one. I should have been done with this part a long time ago--but I just can't see to do it.

So that's one side of what I've been doing.

The other is beginning my next book. I didn't exactly plan to start working on something else. It just sort of happened. Maybe a few months after I'd basically finished the first book, I had an image in my head for the next one. So I wrote that down. And I add to it from time to time. And I think about that story quite a bit, even though I haven't written anything else for it in a little while.

I want this book to be a little different. In some ways, it'll be more linear. I thought it would be less abstract, but now I'm thinking to possibly incorporate magical realism into it. I like the idea of magical realism and I've been wondering why that isn't part of the genre that I write in--so I'm going to try it. Just a sprinkle of it, possibly a sprinkle that'll get bigger as the book moves on. I don't know yet: I still don't know where this story goes or how it ends. But it's kind of fun to be back at the beginning again--and this time I feel more in control of what I can do with this book.

The end and the beginning, the publishing and the drafting, both at once.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 5

This post was originally published on my blog, Delirious Documentations, on March 18, 2016.

Click here to read Part 4.

So much about the creation of books is collaboration--but sometimes that collaboration comes in different forms.

When you are writing a book, you may gain inspiration or support from other people. And then when you're publishing that book, you might get help from an agent, a publisher, editors, cover designers, and an entire marketing team. By deciding to self-publish, I am deciding to be all of these things at once--and yet I am not losing the collaboration. I have given the final draft to a few people to look over. I will probably not be designing the cover myself (at least not completely). I will make use of the consultants that are available from the company I have chosen to publish through to answer any of my questions. And while I will be the beginning of my marketing team, everyone that I speak to will in turn become part of that team.

The Internet can be extremely instrumental in getting word out. But in my case and in the case of this particular book, it seems that word of mouth will be more important. I already have people (either friends of mine or friends of my friends or simply people I/we've come across who have shown interest) who want to buy this book when it comes out. Perhaps there aren't a huge number of them. But once they get it and read it, they can share it with their circles. And the number will increase.

There is a certain enjoyment that comes when fiction takes place in a familiar place. There is a random horror movie from the seventies with William Shatner called Kingdom of the Spiders that was  kind of cool to watch just because it was filmed in central Arizona (I've talked to people who remember when they filmed it). And other than the novelty of it, there comes a point when you want some representation for the place you call home. This brings me to some of my goals for this book.

Most of the fiction that takes place in Arizona belongs to certain genres. Westerns. Border stories--or other stories that are generally concerned with race, ethnicity, and culture. Country stories. All of this is good. It's just that, as someone living in Arizona, these aren't the only things that occupy my mind: so many people live here now and live very "regular" lives here that I don't think Arizona stories need to be constrained by genre. I want my book to be an Arizona book that is not the traditional genre such a book would be considered.

So I want to attract readers who are interested in Arizona, who will want to read my descriptions of the natural landscapes in this state. But I also want to reach people who don't read Westerns or who don't feel like reading another Border story. I want the landscape to remain the setting and the subject perhaps but not the genre, not the theme. The landscape helps to carry the theme but it is not the theme itself: it is the symbol of the theme. The theme is such that it could have taken place in Iceland or France or China instead--but I chose this setting because I wanted the representation to go to this place that I love and that so many other people love, too.

There has been an awakening in Arizona, if I may borrow the phrase--or perhaps it has always been there and I am simply absorbing it more now. I go out to different cities and I see all of the art. The galleries, the paintings, the jewelry, the furniture, and yes, the books, too. So many people are inspired by this land. And I want to be part of that; I want to share in their inspiration and share mine with them--and with you.

Writing Adventures: Part 4

This post was originally published on my blog, Delirious Documentations, on February 16, 2016.

Click here to read Part 3.

It is possible that I have been foolish. Once I found that the literary agent route (in which your agent can approach larger publishers for you) wasn't for me, I turned to smaller publishers (those whom a writer can contact directly without needing to go through an agent). In fact, it was years ago that I put together a list of publishers that writers can contact directly about their books.

My book is set in Arizona, so I in many ways consider it and want it to be "an Arizona book." So I thought that the University of Arizona Press would be a good fit for me and my book. They represent a lot of regional books (both fiction and non-fiction) that sometimes are turned away from other publishers who consider their content too regionalized. And I thought, yes, that's exactly the case with my book: the people in New York can't quite see the need to risk whether or not people from different regions would be interested in it and yet people in Arizona are already interested in it (that is, people that I or my family have talked to about the book are interested in it).

So I followed their procedure for submitting a book proposal. And I appreciate that they got back to me in a timely manner and told me what I suppose I should have already realized: in fiction, they mainly only represent works by Latina/o and Native American writers. The funny thing (to me) is that I am Hispanic (I'm three quarters Mexican, born in California and raised in Arizona since I was eight); so if my last name didn't happen to come from my one quarter "white" side and if I had included a few lines of dialogue in Spanish, then my book probably could have fit in with the Camino del Sol series. (I do realize that this is a question of content not just ancestry and that my book is not at all concerned with racial culture and that's why it doesn't fit in--I'm just saying that it's funny how all the pieces fall sometimes.) So. Despite my wish for this to be "an Arizona book" and despite U of A Press's focus on the region, this just wasn't a match. (Let me add in here that I do still appreciate what they publish and they do publish some great books, so I am by no means saying anything against them.)

It just discouraged me again, especially after all the time I'd put into trying to get a literary agent beforehand. So I decided something. Instead of moving into my list of other publishers that I could approach directly, I decided to just go with Option 3: self-publishing. I thought to myself, maybe what I need is to be in control of everything and to be in direct contact with my readers myself (by this, I mean that if my book was going to be of most interest to Arizonans, then I could physically bring my book to them and tell them of its existence and therefore not need a publisher to market it for me).

It is possible that I decided for certain on self-publishing a tad too soon. Yet whether or not that is the case, I still think that this option will be a good fit for both my style and this particular book. I'll explain why next time.

Writing Adventures: Part 3

This post was originally published on my blog, Delirious Documentations, on January 16, 2016.

Click here to read Part 2.

I've always been grateful toward Kaleb Nation (author of Bran Hambric and Harken): he used to talk a lot about writing and publishing, giving inspiration toward other writers and describing how the whole process had worked out for him. I was in college around this time. So he was kind of like the motivational speaker I was hearing, the person saying that you can do what you want to do and you can make it work. So even though I was always reluctant to say that I wanted to be an author (because I've always been a writer), Kaleb helped me remember that if I wanted to, I could be.

And he also gave some practical advice. He pointed out agentquery.com, which has information about literary agents and about how you write and format query letters to them asking if they would like to represent your book. I would visit this book from time to time, reading different sections of it. And then when I had finished writing and editing my book, I started putting together a list of agents who might be interested in it and writing my query letter.

This was unbelievably difficult.

You know how, when you're in school, you adopt a certain writing tone for essays? One that isn't really yours, even though you're also graded on "voice?" That's how it was writing a query letter: it has to be professional and include certain information. Except the thing is, you have to adopt a certain tone while also demonstrating your specific writing voice as a sample of the tone you take in your book. And that's hard. You have to play by the rules while also trying to stand out, so to speak. Oh, yes, and you have to give each agent specific reasons why your book will appeal to them specifically.

I wrote one letter that I sent out to a few agents. Then I rewrote my letter and started sending out that one instead. And from this second letter I started getting some results: I started getting the occasional rejection. At first I thought, this is fine, they say that getting rejections is good because it means that they took the time to at least give you an answer (as opposed to not answering you at all, which happens quite a bit). And a few people asked to see either a full or a partial of the manuscript. But after a while, as months were passing, it was all starting to wear on me.

I started to feel like I was wasting my time, like no one that I was trying to reach out to would be interested in my book, anyway. So many of these agents want a book that has mainstream potential: my book, in theory, doesn't really. It's more localized, more specific; I know there is an audience for it, but not (in theory) a mainstream one. So trying to convince a busy literary agent in New York that my Arizona book is worth their time just wasn't working out. I had one rejection at least tell me that my book sounded too abstract for their agency; I was grateful that they were so specific.

Given the fiction that's generally considered abstract ("The Wasteland" or Endgame or even something like Mrs. Dalloway), I don't exactly like to use the term toward my book. Abstract also implies that it's difficult to understand; yet I find my book very straightforward and simple to understand in its almost blatant expression of them (blatant sounds like a negative word; I would look for another word, except that this one gets my point across so easily, you see). It doesn't have much of a plot, but does that really make it abstract? To agents and publishers apparently it does. (I've been toying with the phrase "poetic fiction" lately--how does that sound?)

So I came to realize that, unless there was something very wrong with my query letters, my book just wasn't what literary agents look for. And that's okay. If the problem was that my book didn't sound mainstream enough, then that was just fine with me: I did want to create a very specific type of book, so if only certain people (especially at first) found it interesting, I had no problem with that.

Next time: I approach smaller publishers that don't require literary agents.