You Be the Judge

j0438678Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).

I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.

So, I opened the box and opened the first book….

Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.

Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)

I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.

Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

New Life for a Grand Old Gentleman

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is the genre often takes tired, forgotten history and gives it new life. My latest, non-writing project has done the same.

We recently moved my father-in-law out of his home and into a memory care facility. My in-laws had a great deal of lovely antique furniture – the real deal, hand-crafted pieces, made of solid wood. Many of the items had specific memories linked to them by different members of the family. Each of us seemed to want different pieces, and moving the tables, beds, dressers and cabinets into their new homes went smoothly. The items that held no sentimental value were donated. We all seemed to take some comfort in knowing the furniture would be put to practical use and given new life by other families.

grandfather clock - new

As my husband and I walked through the empty house for one of the final times, all that remained was the grandfather clock. My in-laws brought it with them from Illinois when they moved to Phoenix roughly 46 years ago. Dad had owned a pharmacy in Rockford, where he also sold grandfather clocks (why he sold clocks in a pharmacy will probably always remain a mystery to us).

As they prepared to move the family, one clock remained. So, it became a focal point in the new McCann household. Then history repeated itself, one clock remained. So, it became a new focal point in our home – beside the desk where I write every day.

Unfortunately, the clock was broken. My father-in-law had tried many times to get it fixed. But the grand old timepiece was just too tired. Its steady tick-tock and quarter-hour chimes had been silent for years. Both my husband and I love the clock. We always have. Still, it felt strange having the old man standing dormant in our home.

Then inspiration struck as I was perusing internet photos of bookshelves and libraries (yes, that’s a thing). I ran the idea past my husband, and he approved. My mother-in-law and I had shared a love of books and reading. Both she and my father-in-law were immensely proud and supportive of my writing career. As such, we believe they would have approved, too.

I carefully removed and packed away the clock, weights and chimes. I measured and installed shelves. Then I filled the grand old gentleman with books by some of my favorite authors. I also shelved copies of my own novels. If inanimate objects can hold memories and feelings, I hope this new life has made Grandfather happy. The transformation has definitely had that effect on me.

Free Books are Priceless

Authors are often asked for book donations – for charity raffles, libraries, blog giveaways and even random people offering a “free review” in return. Most authors would love to say yes to everyone, but it just isn’t possible. The cost of shipping alone is typically more than an author makes when selling a book. I know this, because I am an author.

Authors also are some of the most generous people around. I know this, because I recently asked a bunch of them to send me signed books for a fundraiser. For free. They responded by filling my mailbox.

Each year my church’s youth group has a dinner and silent auction to raise money for their summer mission trip. I love to read. So, naturally, a giant box of books seemed to me the perfect item to auction off. I did this about five years ago, and the response was overwhelming (both from authors who donated and from those bidding at the fundraiser).

Hoping to replicate that success, I sat down one morning and fired off about a dozen emails. A few were to authors I’ve met in person at various events. Some were to people I had only “met” through social media. Others were to authors who didn’t know me from any other chump asking for a freebie. Once again, the response was overwhelming.

It’s difficult to fully express my gratitude to these folks. Below is an alphabetical list of the authors who contributed (both fiction and nonfiction books). Please help me in thanking them for their generosity by visiting their websites, buying their books, posting reviews online, or perhaps sending a note or two letting them know what their writing and their generous spirits mean to you.

You can also show your support and thanks by donating to the Paradise Valley United Methodist Church youth mission, if you are moved to do so. Here is the link to PVUMC’s secure online giving site.

Photo: Item to be auctioned at the PVUMC youth mission dinner March 2019 – includes 13 signed books, a blank journal, one-of-a-kind pen (handcrafted at, and original book-themed art.

Pay No Attention to the Teenagers behind the Curtain


Huge thanks to Mrs. Markham and her students at Accelerated Learning Center for reading my novel, All Different Kinds of Free.

Teenagers have always been a mystery to me (even when I was a teenager and especially when I was a parent of teenagers). So when a local high school English teacher contacted me to say she was teaching my historical novel in her class and would love to have me speak to her students, I was both massively thrilled and a tiny bit terrified. The visit was last week, and I’m happy to report I had nothing to fear.

The students and faculty at Accelerated Learning Center in Phoenix are amazing. Mrs. Markham created a unique lesson plan and assignments to go along with the group reading of All Different Kinds of Free. As just one example, she had students write a personal essay from the point of view of one of the characters in the book. The papers were posted on the wall, and it was interesting for me to see whose minds the students chose to explore. Some chose main characters (Margaret, Jim, Edward Prigg), while others chose secondary characters (such as Mill Green Justice of the Peace Thomas Henderson). The perspectives portrayed in the papers were insightful and creative (and sometimes hilarious, as Justice Henderson declared in one, “The nerve of some people. God, I need a drink.” I loved it.).

I’m relieved to say no one nodded off while I shared my writing background and inspiration for the novel. The students were attentive and engaged, and they asked a lot of unique questions about writing, researching, publishing and freelancing. The hour we spent together flew by too quickly. While teenagers will probably always be a mystery to me, they are no longer so intimidating thanks to the remarkable students at ALC.  I can’t wait to go back next year, if they’ll have me again.

In Praise of the Handwritten Thank You

Even though many people feel awkward or embarrassed accepting thanks face to face, everyone likes to be appreciated. In addition, a great deal of research shows that expressing gratitude has both physical and psychological benefits (see links below). That’s why I love mailing handwritten thank you notes. I feel good sending them, and those being thanked feel good receiving them.

Handwritten notes take a bit of time and thought to create. That’s a good exercise in gratitude for me. It helps me slow down and focus on the positive things in my life, if only for a few minutes. When a note arrives unexpectedly in your mailbox, you get a pleasant little endorphin boost and you can bask in the appreciation without feeling self-conscious about your response.

Oh sure, Jessica, you may be thinking. That’s easy for you to say. You’re a writer.

It’s true, I have a fondness for putting words to paper, but that is not a requirement for writing a thank-you note. In fact, a thank-you note from someone who hates writing is likely to be valued even higher by the recipient, for the extra effort it required to create.

Give it a try. Send a thank you for that birthday gift. Express your gratitude to the doctor who squeezed you into her busy day when your baby had a fever. Thank the co-worker who stepped in to assist with a difficult client or customer. Write a note to the person who cleans your house, or delivers your mail, or mows your lawn.

Here are a few tips that will help make the task easy and rewarding:

  • Don’t stress over your handwriting. Many people worry about this, and they send an email or online message to say thanks. Electronic thank yous are fine for many situations; but, when it really matters, handwritten notes show you made an extra effort to express your gratitude. That effort trumps less-than-perfect penmanship. Always.
  • Keep it short. You don’t need to write a novel. Three or four sentences are plenty, and keeping it short will help you fend of procrastination of the task.
  • Be specific. For example, if writing a note to your child’s teacher at the end of the school year, say thanks for something unique the teacher did. Rather than writing, “Thank you for making third grade a great year for Sally,” write, “Thank you for the allowing Sally extra time in the library to pick out books. Your patience this year enabled her interest in reading to blossom.”
  • Close with an opening. End your note with an invitation. “Let’s make an effort to meet for coffee or lunch sometime soon. I’ll give you a call next week.” Or, close with a sentence that addresses the future. “Best wishes to you and Jane for a fun-filled summer.” “I’m looking forward to seeing you at church Sunday.”

Additional reading:

University of California – Davis professor Robert Emmons has conducted multiple studies and done extensive writing on the link between gratitude and well-being.

A George Mason University study found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In this Entrepreneur article, Jacqueline Whitmore highlights several tangible benefits of the handwritten letter. 

Writing Podcast: On freelancing, novel writing and life

It was so much fun recording this interview for the Writer’s Market podcast. We chatted about maintaining a successful freelance writing career while pursuing the goal of becoming a published novelist. I also shared some personal stories about my writing journey, as well as general freelance writing and business tips.

The podcast is about 60 minutes, perfect for your daily commute or workout on the treadmill. Click below to listen.

Big thanks to Writer’s Digest Editors Robert Lee Brewer and Brian Klems for inviting me to share my story and insights.

This is Not about Politics

Brace yourself for a strikingly-simple, yet brilliant idea. It’s super easy, and it’s something each of us can do, today. It will make us happier people, and it will make the United States an even better place to live than it is now. Ready? 

Troop 30Here it is: For every minute (or hour, or day) you spend online reading about, fretting over and commenting on political or cultural issues, spend an equal amount of time offline doing something productive for your community (and, by extension, for yourself).

This is not about politics. This is about your health. This is about humanity.

Spending excessive amounts of time doing things online is not only unproductive; it is counter-productive to living a happy, balanced life. It always seems to start with sharing one interesting article, liking one short video or making one quick comment. Yet, somehow, it often spirals downward into a frustrating, angst-inducing abyss.

Don’t take my word for it. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently conducted a study on how social media habits affect the moods of users. The research revealed that the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. A similar study by the University of Illinois also found that extensive engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression. Taking a different approach, researchers in China examined thousands of social media posts to see which emotions go viral the fastest. Happiness, disgust, pride, sadness? Nope. They found it is anger that spreads faster and more broadly than any other emotion, like online wildfire, consuming everything in its path.

ACA NJHS service dayAnger, anxiety and depression. That’s fun stuff, right?

Knowing this, doesn’t it make sense to step away from the online world for a while? Do it not simply to add more physical action to your life, but to add more physical interaction. It can help ground you in the here and now, distance you from the anger spreading online, reduce your anxiety about tomorrow, and maybe even inspire positive changes in the people and world around you.

Before you argue this isn’t as simple as it sounds, I guarantee you it is. I also guarantee it works wonders. I do this. I know other people who do this. It may not always be easy, but it is simple. It is also much more satisfying than staring bleary-eyed at a Smartphone or other screen, more productive than blocking traffic and shouting angry words, more fruitful than sitting around wondering why other people don’t change their ways.

Sherry Turkle’s New York Times best-seller, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, focuses on the importance of conversation in digital cultures. She directs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Initiative on Technology and Self, and has spent the past 30 years researching the psychology of technology. Her research raises critical questions about people’s relationships with technology, as well as technology’s role in productivity, including whether our always-connected state affects our ability to think, be creative and innovate.

FMSC mobile pack PhxHer book description states: “The case for conversation begins with the necessary conversations of solitude and self-reflection. They are endangered: these days, always connected, we see loneliness as a problem that technology should solve. Afraid of being alone, we rely on other people to give us a sense of ourselves, and our capacity for empathy and relationship suffers. We see the costs of the flight from conversation everywhere: conversation is the cornerstone for democracy and in business it is good for the bottom line. In the private sphere, it builds empathy, friendship, love, learning, and productivity.”

“My argument is not anti-technology. It’s pro-conversation,” said Turkle, who has been described as a skeptic who was once a believer. “We miss out on necessary conversations when we divide our attention between the people we’re with and the world on our screens.”

Thankfully, there is also good news according to Turkle: we are resilient, and conversation cures.

PVUMC missionSo here are some ideas to help you get offline and get into a conversation (and maybe even get some fresh air and exercise while you’re at it):

  • Play a game of cards with folks at a senior center.
  • Mow a neighbor’s overgrown lawn.
  • Teach someone to read and write.
  • Babysit for young parents who rarely get a break.
  • Organize a weekly soccer game (or basketball, or tag football, or cricket, or volleyball, or… you get the idea) for friends/neighbors at your local park.
  • Volunteer at the USO; chat with the people who defend and protect freedom.
  • Mentor a child through Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Scouting, 4-H or the foster care program.
  • Share your skill or trade with someone who is eager to learn.
  • Walk or ride your bike on short errands, instead of driving.
  • Pick up trash from the street or a public park.
  • Wash dogs and clean kennels or litter boxes at an animal shelter.
  • Read a book to someone undergoing chemotherapy or to a child in the hospital.
  • Petsmart adoption 2Cook a meal and deliver it to someone who could use the help but would never ask for it.
  • Join a volunteer work crew to help clean up a wilderness area.
  • [insert action word here] for [insert name of someone else here]. [repeat]

If you have other ideas, or would like to share some things you have done to improve your community and your own mental well-being, please sound off in the comments.

(Photos provided by Petsmart Charities, Boy Scout Troop 30 – Phoenix, Paradise Valley United Methodist Church, and Feed My Starving Children)