Thursday, July 30, 2015

Easier Done Than Said: Dreams and Hurdles

I’m not sure I’ll post this. If you’re reading it, obviously a) I didn't chicken out, and b) wow, someone’s actually reading it. Thing is, I’m not sure what I want to say, only that I want to say something. 

I, the ultimate plotter, am going to pants a blog post.

Saying something is no longer anything I take for granted, you see.

About ten years ago, while driving down Broadway Street in New Orleans on my way home from the day job, I was singing with my radio. Although it wasn’t the “day job” at the time because writing novels had never even entered my mind and wouldn’t for several more years.

Nothing was unusual about that day. I still didn’t know the city was going to go to hell around me in three or four months at the whims of a hurricane named Katrina. I was just driving along and singing with a James Blunt song called “Tears and Rain.”

And I couldn’t hold a note without my voice breaking.  

Now, I should say here that I can’t sing worth a crap. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket—or a car. I sing only in places where I can’t inflict my caterwauling on anyone else. But I love music. And on that day, I couldn’t hold a note in the middle range of my voice.

Fast-forward to last year, when I realized that I was holding a coffee cup with two hands because one hand was shaking so badly. Then to last month, when I found myself sitting in a neurologist’s office in Montgomery, beginning a frustrating six weeks of indifferent medical care and scary reactions to medications with less than a 30 percent chance of working.

The good news? It wasn’t Parkinson’s Disease, which was the fear. The bad news? It’s PD’s benign cousin, Essential Tremors with Dystonia. It’s progressive but not fatal. It’s annoying as hell. It can’t be cured. It often can’t be treated. The voice that has gotten so bad that I avoid talking? It might—maybe—be helped by getting Botox injections into my larynx every 3-6 months for the rest of my life. Which can only be done a three-hour drive from where I live. I haven’t made a decision about that yet.

I’ve gotten past the whining, honestly, and if this sounds whiny, my apologies. I’ve also gotten past the anger. Well, most of the time.

I think all I’m trying to say is that I need to speak more than I ever would’ve thought. I'm a writer, after all, not a speaker. But I worry what people will think of my shaky voice and shaky hands. I dread meeting new people, ones who don’t know that I’m not nervous, shy, frightened, or upset. I just sound and look that way. I worry about meeting people and doing panels at a writing convention next month. I worry about a four-hour meeting I have to lead at the day job in September.

But we can’t let crap like this define us, can we? A whole lot of people have things a whole lot worse. I will eventually learn to adapt. And by God, I can still type like a demon to write books and I’m still learning to improve my French using my broken voice. I still try to sing, but it’s worse than ever. Don’t worry; I won’t subject you to it.

I guess here is where this post is leading: We all have dreams and we all have hurdles, whether it’s the dream of writing a best-seller or the hurdle of facing an unexpected medical condition with no cure.

We all have hurdles. It’s how we confront them that matters. We might reach our dreams and we might not. But if we lie down in front of the hurdles that look too daunting or frustrating or embarrassing to go over, we will surely get nowhere.

Next time I see you, if I sound shaky or upset? Just ignore me and shake my hand…if you can catch the damned shaky thing J. And that, I think, is what I wanted to say.

Monday, July 27, 2015

College Days

I’m turning a new page in the chapter of my life. My daughter will start her freshman year at college in a week, and I wonder how I’ll deal with the change. In helping her pack items she’s taking with her, I found a letter she wrote to give to her brother the day she leaves and knew I had to share it.

To My Brother,
   I’m sorry for giving you your first concussion on Thanksgiving. I’m sorry for pushing you in dog poop on Mother’s Day. I’m sorry for pepper spraying you. I’m sorry for yelling at you to leave me alone and for slamming the door in your face. I’m sorry for all the times that you asked me to play with you and I said, “Not Today.” I’m sorry for every time I saw you walking in the subdivision and drove past you. I’m sorry for hiding air fresheners in your room. I’m sorry for using your toothbrush to clean the toilet. I’m sorry for embarrassing you on purpose. I’m sorry for all of my broken promises.
   I cannot even apologize for it; I am always going to act like your second mom. I am always going to keep yelling at you to stop smacking and to clean up the mess you made in the kitchen. It doesn’t matter to me how often you insult me because you’re my little brother and I’m always going to be the boss.
   I forgive all of the little brother insults you have used. I forgive you for hitting me with a wire coat hanger. I forgive you for putting a mechanical fish in my fish tank. I forgive you for spying on me at the beach. I forgive you for embarrassing me in front of every guy I ever brought home. I forgive you for tattling to mom when I drove her car. I even forgive you for being mean to me every morning.
   I am so proud of you. It is not nearly enough, but I am so proud of you, little brother. You are smart and have the ability to be handsome, but to me, we are both halves of one idiot.

Your Sister

Well, as you can imagine, I was laughing so hard after reading this that I had tears in my eyes. Oh my, I remember all the drama as it occurred on a daily basis and am surprised that either of them have lived long enough to mature to this point - without me having killed them. Looking forward, I know she’ll be just fine because she’s grown into a fabulous woman.

In reflection, life experiences are the inspiration behind stories. Memories like this help build a heroine and make them come alive. Don’t be surprised if you read parts of this in a novel one day as I craft a female character. Building in the hidden motives or personality traits that define the character go far deeper than physical appearance.

Who are your favorite heroines, and what was it that caused you to cheer them on as you read a story?

Philisha Byrd Stephens

Friday, July 24, 2015


I first wrote this post under my pen name, Elaine Hussey, and it appeared on my website at So many people have asked for it again that I’m sharing it with you at Southern Magic.  

Some time ago I watched an old Clint Eastwood movie with my family -  Every Which Way But Loose.   Eastwood is such a gifted artist that watching his movies is always a pleasure.  He was good as the complex Philo, a guy who hangs out with a baboon.

But it was Ruth Gordon who stole the show. Feisty, salty, and funny, she commanded the screen.  She called herself a “helpless old lady” and proved herself to be anything but.  During the scene where Gordon uses her shotgun to deliver some comeuppance to a rowdy group of bikers, my son said, “She’s just like Mama Hussey.” 

Mama Hussey was my mother. And though she has been dead for more than seven years, everybody in the family still tells “Mama Hussey” stories. And, yes, she kept a shotgun under her bed. She knew how to use it, too.  Mama was the picture of a perfect Southern lady, always dressed to the nines, the more jewelry the better.  She loved good books, good movies and a good laugh. But let a stranger show up on her front porch after dark, and he’d find himself looking down the barrel of Mama’s shotgun.
Mama was larger than life. And so was Ruth Gordon’s character in Every Which Way But Loose.  But they had something else in common, too: they both reminded you of someone you know.  They were ordinary, approachable, and likeable, somebody to root for.  Full of spirit and big of heart.  Much like my Billie and Miss Queen (The Sweetest Hallelujah, July 30,2012)).   Billie and Miss Queen are perhaps the most memorable in a long list of characters I’ve created over a career that spans more than twenty-five years.

What about memorable bad guys, you ask? Of course, we remember Hannibal as the personification of evil. But it’s not the evil that makes him memorable: it’s his complexity - his relationship with Clarice, his longing for a window, his uncanny ability to get into the minds of the other characters and plant seeds of doubt and discontent.

There is much more to say about memorable characters, but I’ll leave that for another day. Meanwhile, I invite you to tell me about characters you remember, the ones you love to love and the ones you love to hate.

I also invite you to browse to learn more about the characters in The Sweetest Hallelujah. You’ll find quotes from them throughout. The excerpt will give you a first glimpse of Billie, who will simply catch hold of your heart and not let go.

Peggy Webb is the USA Today Bestselling author of 75 books. She writes romance, women's fiction and mystery under this name and literary fiction as Elaine Hussey. Her latest novel is Stars to Lead Me Home. For more info, visit her website at 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Fact or Fiction or Fictional Fact? When to make it up...

As writers we have a certain responsibility to maintain authenticity for readers. If readers can't relate to or believe something, then they likely won't be readers long.

When we craft stories, we make so many things up: people, plots, places.  It's fiction, after all!

But are there things we should NOT make up?  And where do you draw the line? How does genre play a part in this, especially as relates to reader expectation?

Historical romance authors research extensively to provide the most accurate portrayal of the time period in their books. I'm in awe of the details they weave into a story (without me even realizing it) and their ability to transport me through their creativity. Romance Writers of America (RWA) even has the Beau Monde chapter, which is primarily for the Regency period. Hearts through History is another chapter, and they will welcome you with open arms. These writers are learners, as I like to say, with an impressive dedication to historical accuracy.

All of the genres have RWA chapters to help encourage great fiction, just another sign that romance authors are trying to "get it right" for our readers.

Paranormal romance is on the other end of the fact versus fiction spectrum, as it should be. Writers create entire worlds and behaviors for our favorite supernaturals, sometimes creating a new type of supernatural to boot. Facts are still relevant in paranormal romance, but not necessarily in the same way. A writer will create a world of facts and then must stay true to that world.

Erotic romance authors pride themselves on portraying the facts of safety, mutual consent, and sex positive experiences. In these stories the characters and plots may be fiction, but a sex positive experience, for example, is the consistent fact.

Romantic suspense may be the most difficult balance of fact versus fiction due to well known settings or organizations. If the story is set in Washington D.C. and involves police, government, or official agencies, then a writer will need a good understanding of all of those things. A reader who loves military suspense wants the writer to honor the military hero's service with accuracy. Along the same lines, a romance writer probably shouldn't destroy a national monument in a book...although the threat could be used to move the story forward.

Inspirational romance maintains the facts of the belief system it incorporates. It is critical to these readers that facts stay true to their expectations.

Contemporary romance authors have to maintain the facts of daily life, the jobs people have and the way we live our lives in the current time period. However, there is plenty of wiggle room for creating places and scenarios. Is it likely that the new guy in the apartment next door is an MMA fighting champ? Probably not. But, I'll take that fiction any day!

So, what do all of these books have in common? The human experience. Whether it's an unwilling Duke in Regency England or a muscled cyborg on a distant planet or a military suspense set on Capitol Hill or two small town friends getting a second chance at love - we understand them through our shared emotional experiences in this crazy life we live.

We all love a man's reaction to a woman he's attracted to.  Right? That first spark between them when they recognize this could be MORE. We travel with them on their journey, falling for them as they fall for each other (sometimes even before!). Then, the moment when things couldn't be worse for them arrives, and we break with them. We root for them to work things out and get satisfaction from their happily ever after. We think about them weeks later if the author has done a great job, imagining the life they are living because the writer has made them real to us in our hearts.

Whether it's an emotion we've had before or have yet to experience, we understand. Emotion is at the heart of the human experience. A good writer can blend the facts we need with the fiction we want, giving readers a story that's fresh yet recognizable where it counts.

And that's a fact!

Where do you draw the line between fact and fiction in what you read or what you write?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Going to RWA Nationals for the First Time? 10 Things I Learned

I won't be going to the RWA national conference this year, and I am sad! But I am so happy for those of you who are going--especially those who are going for the first time!!

I attended my first RWA conference in Atlanta a few years ago, and it was a wonderful experience. I had attended smaller conferences before, but I was a little overwhelmed when I headed to Atlanta (driving in Atlanta was enough to give me a heart attack) and saw how big of an event the RWA national conference really is! So, I thought I would give you guys a list of some things I learned from my experience...

1. If this is your first RWA conference, wear your "First Timer" ribbon with pride. Seriously. I assume they still hand these out when you pick up your registration packet (do that ASAP). The ribbon was orange the year I went to nationals, and it was great because so many people saw it first thing and offered to talk and help me out. That ribbon is your key to the kingdom as a new attendee!

2. Go to the orientation. You learn so much, and it is a great experience and a good opportunity to meet people. Everyone is excited and ready to chat. It really gets you excited about what is coming your way, too!...which leads me to my next bit of advice...

3. Don't overload your schedule. Yes, RWA nationals is an expensive event and you want to get as much out of it as possible, but if you try to attend too many sessions and don't give yourself any down time, you are not going to learn as much as you should. I tried to go to everything the first day or two, and once I eased off, it was a much more rewarding experience.

4. Be flexible. Popular sessions can be really crowded (standing room only, sometimes). After the first day, I made a list of sessions I absolutely had to attend. I made sure to be there super early so that I could get a seat. If I unexpectedly found myself faced with a really crowded session, and if I didn't want to stand or sit on the floor, I had a back-up list of sessions to attend.  Just be flexible. My best advice: Find out if the session you want to attend (along with a million other people) is being recorded for download later. If so, and if you are willing to listen to the audio only later on, then go to something else. I love my audio downloads of sessions, and I find it really helpful to be able to listen to them in a clam environment. Sitting in a crowded room full of people doesn't do much for my concentration.

5. Bring comfortable shoes. You do need to dress professionally, so plan ahead and bring comfy shoes because you will be walking...a lot.

6. Turn off your cell phone. Please do this. It is really rude to have it ring in the middle of a session, and I witnessed this more than once. I also saw a woman who actually sat there and had a conversation on her phone while a session was going on. This is not cool. Remember: You are paying a lot of money to attend--and so is everyone else.

7. Take advantage of morning breakfast gatherings and other places to make connections. Talk to people. If you are shy and don't know what to say, you can always ask someone, "What do you write?" or "Who are some of your favorite authors?" You will find common ground in no time!

8. Attend book signings! These are so much fun, and you can meet so many authors!

9. Attend the RWA business meeting. I went because I didn't have anything else to do, and it actually turned out to be one of the most interesting parts of the conference for me!

10. The most important thing: HAVE FUN. Don't put so much pressure on yourself. If you are pitching, don't freak out. If you are shy, break out of your shell a little bit more each day. Do this for yourself: You deserve it. Take it all in. Attend the luncheons and the awards dinner. The speeches you hear will make you so proud to call yourself a romance writer.

And that is the key here. RWA is about professionalization and opportunities to pitch and taking time to learn about craft/marketing/etc. But it is also about community. You will come away with a new sense of pride about what you do. You will come away knowing that you must call yourself a writer--and not just any writer....a PROUD ROMANCE WRITER!

Enjoy, everyone! And post lots of tweets and Facebook updates!! I will live vicariously through you!

Susan Sierra is a historical and contemporary romance writer. She loves books and old letters, adores her dog and family, and has a deep and committed love affair with coffee. She spent time as an undergraduate studying (having fun) in Mexico, went on to work for a large regional magazine as a copyeditor, and then decided that she hadn’t tortured herself enough in she went to graduate school. After many years, she walked away with a PhD and an unhealthy relationship with Charles Dickens. She hopes to complete her first full-length novel in 2015. FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER!