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In the wake of serious illness

Olivia’s Heart Song, the second in my Bethany Beach trilogy, deals with a serious health issue. At age thirty, Dan Newhouse just had surgery to fix a heart defect which had gone undetected until he’d reached adulthood. Now he’s looking at his life through new eyes and making changes, something an older friend and client of his understands, as the friend tells Dan about his own brush with a life-changing experience in his youth:

“When Grace and I were just starting out, before the boys came along, I was in an accident. Piece of machinery fell on me. Wrong place, wrong time. Long story short is I was out of work for a half year… That kind of thing…being too close to the Grim Reaper when you think you have quite a few years to make his acquaintance, let alone stare him in the face…well, the day I woke up from the knockout was as if I’d been reborn.”

Anyone who’s faced serious illness or accident can probably relate to these sentiments. I remember once hearing a man express thanks for being afflicted with cancer! How could that be? Well, maybe he was being a bit too glib, but his idea, that serious illness can shift your view of life in a good way, is anything but shallow. It forces you to evaluate what’s truly important, what can be easily discarded, what  you have to let go and what you need to hang on to.

We often lead our lives in a state of true blissful ignorance. We ignore our mortality. Yes, all of us know our days eventually come to an end, but we can go days, months, years without thoughts of that end intruding on our daily lives. Not so if you face a serious health challenge. Then, those thoughts pop into your mind more often. They shine a bright spotlight on all the clutter in your life, and make you think about cleaning it all up.

Like many, I’ve faced the Big C in my own life and had to go through the three usual therapies: surgery, chemo, radiation. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say thanks for the affliction, cancer did force me to refresh my view of a lot of things.

One piece of clutter I cleaned up in my life around that time — throwing out old journals. As I looked them over, I realized they were filled with whining and complaining (mostly about the publishing industry as I struggled to get published!). But there was too much joy in my life for those journals to be my written legacy. So…out they went.

When I was in treatment, time seemed to stop for long periods as I dealt with the challenges of each day, of crawling out of the fatigue and relentless schedule of treatment to the light of normalcy. Olivias_Heart_Song_600x900But normalcy is hard to find in the wake of such experiences. You do wonder about aches and pains, if they signify something serious, in those months after treatment ends. I read an article about the post-treatment phase that noted it’s common for cancer patients to be particularly fearful immediately after they’re discharged from care. After having been tended to almost daily for months on end, they’re suddenly free — free of health care visits but also free of the care itself! That can be scary.

In Olivia’s Heart Song, Dan Newhouse is in that stage, right after surgery, still emotionally fragile, still overly conscious of his body’s every ache, his heart’s every beat. When he meets a former army nurse recovering from her own heartbreaking troubles, he wonders if he can feel whole enough to love someone…and if she could view him as more than a sick man who needs tending. The story follows them both on a bumpy path to recovery from physical and emotional wounds as they sort out what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

I hope it resonates with people who’ve faced serious illness and lets them know they’re not alone in their fears and hopes, their struggles to feel normal again.

This book, like the first in this series, is set along the Delaware coastline, an area my family and I enjoy a great deal, a quiet region filled with nature preserves, serene bays, miles of sandy beaches, and great restaurants and shops.

Olivia’s Heart Song is now available at Amazon.

 

 

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Excerpt: Reese’s Summer of Promise

From Reese’s Summer of Promise by Libby Malin

(Tales of Bethany Beach, Book One)

PROLOGUE

Reese Newhouse jammed her hands in the pockets of her parka, one fist curling around her smartphone as if to crush it and the email she’d just read on its small screen. She stared out at the churning Atlantic, leaning into the corner of the boardwalk railing, blinking her eyes fast to keep from crying.

Dammit. She wouldn’t cry. Couldn’t cry. Not now.

This officially had to count as the Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever.

With a sniffle, she squinted through bright sunshine to watch intrepid surfers, clad in special wet suits, riding the chilly waves that still roared into the shore from a Nor’easter that had slipped up the Delaware coastline miles at sea the night before. In its wake was a sparkling dusting of snow on the sand and boardwalk, creating a glistening winter wonderland at odds with the dark, ugly thoughts in her heart.

The town felt deserted, as if all its residents had been alerted to an emergency and only a few diehards remained. But it was February, not the “season.”

Even when Bethany Beach was bustling, though, it still had the air of a small town about it with a short boardwalk and three-block main street filled with quirky stores, eateries and the usual national franchises. Most folks thought of bigger resorts for their summer fun, but Bethany, along with the 117 miles of seacoast that made up Delaware’s eastern border, was a hidden gem.

Today, Reese was glad Bethany was so quiet, with few people about to observe her heartache.

She breathed deeply. She had to put on a good face. Must not let her father and brother and aunt see her like this. Not today. Not on this occasion.

She heard their steps coming up behind her and turned, forcing her muscles into a slap-happy grin of greeting that she hoped would fool them all.

“You should have gone in. It’s cold out here!” her father, Theodore Newhouse, said as he hugged her, pressing a light kiss on her cheek.

“Such a beautiful day,” she managed to mumble, her cheeks already feeling stiff from her plastic smile. Her brother, Dan, looked as grim as she felt, his face white as the snow with two bright red spots on his cheeks from the cold. He nodded to her, his hands stuffed in his pockets, his collar turned up against the chill. “Besides…I thought we’d…do the ceremony first…then eat…” She gestured to the restaurant behind them and peered over their shoulders, scanning the walkway. “Where’s Aunt Nancy?”

“She’s got a bad cold,” her father said, an odd sense of relief in his voice. “Didn’t want to make the drive from Wilmington.” And then she noticed that no one was carrying…the box. The box that contained the urn with her mother’s ashes. And she knew. Once again, he was postponing scattering them, using Aunt Nancy’s absence as an excuse, most likely, and that of her sister and her family, who’d had to beg off when the storm had left them stranded in their Virginia home waiting for a power outage to be fixed.

“Dad…” she said, softly, her own pain now pushed aside as she considered his. She reached out to touch his arm, and he turned his head away toward the sea, as if studying those surfers was an assignment he had to complete before they went in.

She swallowed. She noticed Dan grimacing and shaking his head slowly, staring at his feet. He’d obviously tried convincing him already to go through with their plan, to no avail.

Their mother had been gone since December, and their father had yet to honor her wishes by scattering her ashes along the shore she’d loved so much. They’d finally convinced him to do it today, Valentine’s Day. And they’d planned a family meal together afterward in the expensive new hotel restaurant on the Bethany Beach, Delaware boardwalk, to take the edge off the sad task.

But once again, her father had found a reason to delay the task, to keep his beloved Jean near him.

She couldn’t fight this battle again. Not today, at least. Not after…that email.

Struggling with her own pain, she straightened and let her phony smile fall. She had to shepherd this group to some sort of peaceful ground and put aside her own heartbreak. She was the senior sibling here, with her older sister, Sarah, stuck in Virginia.

“Come on,” she said, putting her hand through the crook of her father’s elbow. “Let’s go in and raise a glass to Mom, at least.”

At that, he turned to her, and his lips twitched up, as if to offer thanks, but she saw the unshed tears in his eyes and looked away, afraid he’d see hers, as well.

Together, the three of them entered the restaurant.

***

Reeses_Summer_of_Promise_1600x2400A painful two hours later after a meal of good food they’d hardly touched, she bid them farewell in the restaurant parking lot, whispering in her brother’s ear as she kissed him goodbye, “We have to talk.”

After she saw them get in Dan’s car and drive off, she got into her own truck and pulled out her phone again to face the reality she’d tried mightily to push aside during the family dinner.

Fingers trembling, she slid the message into view, part of her hoping she’d misinterpreted it the first time. But, no, her reading comprehension skills had been spot-on.

A “Dear John” letter. But she was the “John.”

“Dear Reese,” it read, “I’ve been putting off writing this, but just can’t anymore. I wish you all the best in the world, but I’m just not ready to get married…”

Her fiancé, Lieutenant Sam Bakersfield, was dumping her. Did he even know it was Valentine’s Day? Probably not. He was deployed in Afghanistan. Special forces. Maybe even at an FOB with minimal communication ability. Maybe that’s why he’d chosen today, knowing it would be hard for her to try to Skype or FaceTime with him once she got his bad news.

As she stared at the device and swallowed hard, it rang. Sarah. She didn’t want to take it, but she knew why Sarah was calling.

“He didn’t do it,” Reese said on a cough as she answered the phone.

“Why not?” Sarah asked. “It wasn’t because I couldn’t make it, was it?”

Her sister’s absence had probably provided their father with a convenient excuse, but if he wasn’t ready to let go, would it have helped to push him where he didn’t want to go? Her strong, self-assured father was no more. In his place was an indecisive, distant man she didn’t know how to reach.

She wiped a tear from her eye. “We had a nice lunch. It was okay. Dan was here.”

“Should I come up?”

“No.” She couldn’t face Sarah at this moment, beautiful, confident Sarah with the great husband and great kids, the perfect life. She couldn’t even tell her yet. Not now. “Look, can we talk later? I’m in my truck. And I’m cold.”

They ended the conversation, but still Reese didn’t move, her gaze fixed on the phone in her hand, wanting to look at the offending message one last time, wanting never to see it again, caught between before and now.

With a growl, she pulled the small pear-cut diamond ring from her hand, intending to throw it to the floorboards. But as she raised her fist for the toss, angry resolve left her, and she instead arced her clasped hand to her lips, her grip so tight the diamond cut into her cold fingers.

A strangled cry broke from her throat, and she leaned on the steering wheel and sobbed.

CHAPTER ONE

Four months later

Beep-beep-beep! The backhoe’s warning cut the air as Reese slid the big piece of equipment into Reverse, then cranked the gears to move forward to another patch of ground, manipulating the boom and dipper to punch and dig the earth before her.

She wiped her brow with a gloved hand. Sweat collected under her hard hat in this late May heat wave. Although it was morning, her shirt already clung to her frame under her vest, and her feet swelled in their tightly laced work boots. And she had a headache.

No rest for the weary, she thought, as she soldiered on. She was only operating the backhoe because the guy they’d hired for this job had left for a better gig in New Jersey two days ago. Usually Reese was in the construction trailer managing the site work, as VP of Newhouse Construction, or at the office going through paperwork. Her father was the president, but he wasn’t on the job much.

As she pushed the machine into another gear, she saw the crew chief, Ben, waving at her. She halted the backhoe and turned off its engine, quickly dismounting the mammoth vehicle with the agility of a gymnast. Working on her father’s sites since high school, she knew how to operate almost every piece of equipment they owned, a skill that came in handy when they were short a worker on a tight deadline. Like this one.

“What’s up?” she asked Ben, pushing her hard hat off her brow and pulling off the hot gloves.

The stocky rusty-haired chief pointed at a spot near the tree line of the big brown muddy area they were working, prepping it for a housing development, a contract that had to be finished in record time. She’d been the one to agree to the deadline when she’d bid on the job. They’d lose money for every week they went over it.

“Found something. Might be an artifact.” He sported a half smile, and Reese realized that habit of his annoyed her. It was as if he was always…sneering…at her. Prior to her father’s absence from the job, Reese had handled a lot of the business’ paperwork while her dad had interacted with crew and staff. Six months into her expanded leadership of the team, Reese wasn’t sure that Ben had completely accepted her as a boss. Others had, and she’d been proud of how she’d managed them. Ben was a bit too old-school in his attitudes toward women on the job, though.

“Crap.” Heaving a sigh, she followed him to the spot. Finding any kind of historical artifact on a work site meant delays at the very least and complete cessation of the project at the most. Reese loved and respected history. Just not on her work sites.

When she saw what the item was, she breathed a sigh of relief. Just a metal lockbox of some sort, nestled in a pile of sandy moist soil, the only kind there was this close to the Delaware coast. It lay open and empty.

“We shot photos of it,” Ben said. And then he pulled a wad of papers from a big pocket on his work vest. “These were in it.”

Her relief buzzed back to anxiety as she took the bundle from him. Tied with rotting string, the mildewed, deteriorating bunch could still be identified through some scribbles on the top—they were letters. From the 1940s.

Crap. Crap. Crap.

Being a resident of the area, she knew its history and that of the stark watchtowers that still dotted the Delaware coast. Round silos of concrete—poured quickly in one piece, the history went—they had slits for the lookouts who were meant to keep an eye out for enemy efforts to block the Delaware Bay during World War II. Even a lost ship would be a win for enemies in these waters. A ship sunk in that bay where Lewes, Delaware looked across at Cape May, New Jersey, could have kept precious fuel at upriver refineries from reaching important destinations. An old fort at Cape Henlopen—Fort Miles—had big guns aimed at the sea to forestall any unwanted naval traffic in the area. They’d never been fired on enemy ships, but thousands of men had been stationed there before ultimately being sent overseas to Europe and Asia at the end of the war.

A piece of history from that era might be valuable.

“At least it’s not bones,” she muttered, but Ben heard and nodded. Unearthing an old cemetery or Indian gravesite would mean a complete shutdown as experts poured in, making it an archaeological and not a construction dig.

“I should hand this over to somebody,” Ben said, as if she wouldn’t have thought of it herself. And then, he added, “We haven’t found anything else.”

“Okay,” she said making a decision. The last thing she wanted was local or state authorities rapping her knuckles for not doing the right thing. “Don’t work this area today. Just keep leveling the ground near the road. I’ll take these into town and figure out what to do with them.” She placed the packet in her own work vest pocket and grabbed the handle of the lockbox. “Keep things moving,” she said.

She looked at her watch. If she hurried, she could take the find to the local historical society, then pop over to the office and finish the paperwork on Newhouse Construction’s next bid, then run to the store and pick up some groceries her father needed, and drop them at his house in time for lunch, which she’d promised to have with him today. She’d be back at the site this afternoon.

Reese liked being busy, but this was getting ridiculous. Ever since her broken engagement, she’d poured all her energy into work. And for good reason. Her dad was still mourning, working half days when he worked at all, often not coming into the office. She’d gotten used to not bothering him with decisions after he’d snapped at her more than once when she’d asked the same questions several times.

Now she was used to working independently.

As she tramped off the site toward her truck, her hat tucked under her arm and the lockbox dangling from her fingers, she noticed a lone figure approaching from the road. She’d seen him around before, mostly on the beach, horsing around with other men, playing volleyball. Or at least trying. He had a pronounced limp most of the time, and Reese suspected he was military from the short cut of his brown-blond hair, the muscular build, the all-business air. Military in town to do Pain and Torture at Dover Air Force Base up the road was her guess.

Physical therapy—but the soldiers, sailors, airmen who had to go through it called it pain and torture. Reese knew because her best friend, Anne Lee, was head of PT at the base health center, a civil service position that she loved. She handled PT for a variety of military—army, navy, air force, marines—at the inpatient health facility there.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for Reese Newhouse,” he said when their paths crossed. He shot a glance over her shoulder toward Ben, as if he expected her to lead him there. It wasn’t the first time she’d had men think Reese Newhouse wasn’t a woman.

“What do you want with Reese?” she said without rancor but with a no-nonsense tone.

“I wanted to talk to him about the backhoe operator position,” he said. At least he looked her in the eye when he spoke instead of scouring the worksite for the “real” Reese Newhouse.

“I’m Reese Newhouse,” she said. “Talk away.”

If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. Instead, he thrust out his hand for a firm handshake and looked her in the eyes. His were a mesmerizing crystal-blue.

“I’d like to apply for the job,” he said, pointing to the now-silent piece of equipment. “I saw your ad online.”

She’d posted it just hours after getting notice from her former worker. She tilted her head, taking stock of him. If he was military, as she suspected, why’d he need a job?

Not her business, she thought, as she evaluated him further. Strong, capable-looking, muscles straining at a dark green T-shirt. The limp wouldn’t be a problem if he had experience.

“Did you fill out the application?”

He nodded. “Yup. But thought I’d stop by to seal the deal.” He grinned, and she could tell from his confident gaze he was used to charming people with that smile. Dimples formed on either side of a perfect mouth, and warmth emanated from his face, as those blue eyes sparkled with good will. Even she was sucked in. And after Sam, she’d sworn off military, even military types.

Nope, no soldiers, airmen or sailors for her. When she returned to dating, she was going to look for teachers, doctors, lawyers, librarians or even mime artists. No more pumped-up bravado and machismo. She saw enough of it on construction sites, and all it did, she thought, was muddy a man’s thinking. She’d take straightforward and bland, someone honest with her and honest with himself, thank you very much.

Still…those eyes…those muscles…

But he wasn’t date material. He was worker material. And he’d shown up at the work site instead of just filling out the online application. She had to give him points for initiative.

“Okay. I’ll look over your app during my lunch break. If you stop by the office at, say, one-thirty, I’ll give you an interview, assuming your application passes muster.” She wasn’t one for being coy, and she’d not been flooded with apps since posting the position. Now that construction season was underway, machine operators were sometimes hard to find.

“Good enough,” he said, and put out his hand to shake as confirmation. This time, his grip was gentler, as if he had nothing more to prove. “Name’s Zack Davies, by the way. And I printed out my application…just in case.” He pulled two neatly folded sheets of paper from a back pocket and handed them to her. Initiative and preparation—she was impressed.

“Okay, Zack.” She took the papers and did a brief glance. As she suspected, he was military all right. Army. That meant he was probably from around here if he was doing PT at Dover. The military would let members do therapy near their homes, even if it was at another branch’s base.

“I’ll look this over,” she said, then nodded and moved past him, headed for her truck. As she walked, she couldn’t escape the feeling that he was watching her, staring at her back. She shook it off. It was nothing except the satisfaction of having a good-looking man give her a positive once-over. She’d take the compliment and get on with her work.

(c) Libby Malin Sternberg 2019

Reese’s Summer of Promise is available now in paperback and for Kindle.

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Favorite Beach Read 2019: Reese’s Summer of Promise

I’d love it if my book was the “Favorite Beach Read of 2019,” but I don’t even know where to submit it for such an honor. So I’m daydreaming with the title of this post. I hope you’ll indulge me as I tell you a little about this book and why I hope it becomes readers’ favorite beach read of the summer.

First, let’s talk about what makes a good beach read. For me, it’s something not too dark, that keeps me rooting for the characters, has a layered, not shallow, plot, and, yes, involves a happy ending. Throw in a beach location, and it’s a beach beach read!

Reese’s Summer of Promise is the first of three books set along the Delaware coast. So, beach setting–check!

Its main characters are strong, independent people. There’s Reese, who can operate a back hoe and other heavy construction equipment as VP of her father’s construction company. There’s Zack, an army man home to do physical therapy for a leg injury acquired in Afghanistan. Both start their summer “friendship” still stinging from rejection. He received a “Dear John” letter from his fiancee while in the “sandbox,” while Reese received the same breakup from her airman fiance when he was similarly deployed. So, interesting characters–check!

Reeses_Summer_of_Promise_1600x2400As to a layered plot, both Reese and Zack shy away from commitment after being deeply hurt, and they both are dealing with other challenges. Reese, along with her two siblings, is still trying to get her recently widowed father to honor her mother’s wishes and have a memorial service, scattering her ashes along the coast she loved as much as Reese does. Zack is working hard to get his leg back in shape, determined to rejoin his unit wherever they are next sent. Throw in this mix a discovery of old World War II love letters involving a soldier from nearby Fort Miles. As the summer progresses, Reese wonders if the soldier made it home alive…just as she is falling for her own soldier and learns he might be going in harm’s way once more. So, layered plot – check!

The Delaware coastline is a favorite spot for my family. We love vacationing there, especially at the “quiet resort” of Bethany Beach, where Reese lives and works. The book takes readers on a journey to this beautiful area, its bays and salt marshes, its eateries and beaches, and its history. Concrete silos from World War II still dot its coastline, and soldiers were once stationed at Cape Henlopen’s Fort Miles with guns trained on the entrance to the Delaware Bay so no enemy ships could get through to the refineries up river.

As with all beach settings, romance seems to float in with the tide, and Reese can’t resist its pull any more than Zack can, despite the fact that they both start in the “friend zone,” not intent on anything beyond a summer fling, something Reese’s best friend, Anne, urges on her, as she thinks about Zack:

“I’ve sworn off military men,” Reese said, gazing over to where Zack and his friends ambled on the boardwalk. She cringed for him—he’d given up on hiding his pain and now openly limped. They were all so intent on proving to the world they could take it—whatever “it” was. She’d spent enough time with a man like that. Sam had been full of bluster and pride, eager to show her around the base, to brag about what he did, how he helped schedule all the big transports out of Dover. No more. Swagger just hid the truth—they were human.

Then she remembered Anne was dating a military man, Gabe something, a pilot at Dover. They’d only been going out about a month.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with military men for other people,” Reese added, so as not to offend Anne.

Anne was the one snorting now, then she sat up again and returned to her more serious mood. She lightly touched Reese’s hand.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with being…intrigued by a man, military or not. It doesn’t mean commitment. It means enjoying yourself. Look, I wouldn’t be surprised if Zack was interested in you. He’s only here for the summer. What’s wrong with a summer fling? You deserve it.”

Reese’s Summer of Promise will be available soon at Amazon. The Kindle price is a bargain, so I hope you check it out and look for the next in the series after you visit with Reese and Zack. And I hope  — and daydream — that readers will find it a favorite beach read this year!

Visit Libby’s website at www.LibbyMalin.com for information on her other novels.

 

 

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Storytelling: “The Office” and Happy Endings

For the past several weeks, I’ve been binge-watching all nine seasons of the American version of The Office, the hit comedy series that ran on NBC starting in 2005. I’d watched it when it originally aired on network TV, but seeing it again, with no week-long intermission between episodes, emphasized a theme on the show that didn’t hit me as starkly otherwise. That theme is: most people are good.

It’s strange to think of that theme when the show itself has so many cringe moments. Michael Scott, the manager of the Scranton, PA branch office of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, is selfish, cowardly, capricious, petty, and egotistical. When you watch the first episodes, you can’t help but be repulsed by his outlandish personality and sympathize with those under his thumb.

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 11.49.11 AMBut as you get to know him, you see something else: a fragile, shy, isolated, lonely man who just wants to be loved. Those glimpses often come, though, at the tail end of something particularly annoying.

For example, in the Season Two episode “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” Michael shows his staff a video clip from when he, as a child, appeared on the show Fundle Bundle. 

You shake your head as he shushes people when they comment as the video rolls, he makes an inappropriate comment about the female host’s body, and he is visibly jealous when staffers recognize a local weatherman as a child on the show.

Then, the boy Michael Scott is on the video screen, ridiculously dressed in a suit, talking to a puppet about what he wants from life: “I want to be married and have a hundred kids so I would have a hundred friends and no one can say no to being my friend.”

The young girls in the room, daughters of staffers, start badgering Michael with questions: Did he get married, did he have children? The obvious conclusion is that Michael never realized his dream.

The camera pans to the staff who just a few moments before were engaged in their usual eye-rolling at his antics. Each in turn shows shock and sympathy. Michael the Fool has become transformed in their (and our) eyes to Michael, il pagliaccio, the sympathetic clown from Leoncavallo’s opera. You can almost hear the heartbreaking aria “Vesti la giubba” in your head with its clown’s soliloquy about turning one’s sorrow into laughter.

In every episode there seems to be a moment like this, where a character’s fragility or vulnerability is revealed, usually after the person has done something embarrassing, mean-spirited, dumb, or just plain bad.

Similarly, you see the other characters then finding a way to lift that poor soul up, even if they have to bite their tongues while doing it.

When I first watched The Office as it aired, I didn’t always catch this constant through the episodes as I laughed at the staff antics and nodded at the inane business practices, the know-nothing bosses, the office parties and the simmering feuds among workers.

But it shows up episode after episode, and, although many characters do get their happy endings as stories resolve, the biggest happy ending for the series itself is the theme that plays out through the nine seasons of its entire story arc: deep down, people are capable of being very good, even when they don’t particularly like each other.

And, since I’m a country music fan, below is a musical rendition of that sentiment.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She writes under the names Libby Malin and Libby Sternberg.

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Storytelling: Haves vs Have-Nots

Years ago, I read an article about the now-defunct soap opera Another World. I was a fan at the time. I’m unashamed to admit I enjoy serial storytelling, and soap operas rule in that genre, keeping plot lines and characters alive (sometimes even after they’re supposedly dead!) for years, even decades. I’ve even written a book, a romantic comedy, about a soap head writer (My Own Personal Soap Opera).

Marriage_of_Mac_and_Rachel_Another_World_1975

Rachel and Mac get married on “Another World”

In the article, an Another World head writer or producer talked about the core of the soap’s storytelling. Haves vs. have-nots provided the foundation for most if not all their tales. One of the soap’s biggest stories involved the character of Rachel Davis (played by Victoria Wyndham), daughter of single-mother Ada, who villainously connives to seduce and try to marry one rich fellow after another, ultimately landing on wealthy Mac Cory (played by Douglass Watson), with whom she finds happiness (and, of course, sadness as they break up, make up and…on and on).

That story thread, haves vs. have-nots, provides a foundation for some of my own tales in one way or another. My stories aren’t always about rich vs. poor, but they almost always carry an element of upper-class vs. middle or working class, maybe because I felt those distinctions myself over the years as the daughter of two wonderful parents who worked hard all their lives (in white collar jobs) but made sure their two children went to college. I even went to a music conservatory.

Talk about class tensions. In that highly competitive atmosphere, the “haves” were those with musical pedigrees, maybe parents who played in orchestras or maybe just a lifetime immersion in classical music. Everything I knew about classical music came from those conservatory teachers at the time. In that sense, I was a “have not,” acutely aware of my lack of standing, afraid I’d trip up and mispronounce a composer’s name or, as I did one day, bring into a class a ridiculously sentimentalized arrangement of an art song, not realizing how this selection might reveal what a cultural neanderthal I really was. Screen Shot 2019-04-03 at 11.10.27 AM

The conservatory was in Baltimore, my home town, which for many years was very socially stratified, with various groups living in specific regions of the town–old money in Roland Park and Guilford, ethnic whites in Highlandtown, Jewish people on the west side, steel workers in the suburbs of Dundalk, and African-Americans in the inner city.

This experience of class lines, of feeling like a “have not,” even if my family wasn’t poor, undergirds the first adult mystery I ever wrote, Death Is the Cool Night. In this novel, a troubled young conductor, Gregory, can’t remember his actions on the night his nemesis is murdered. As police investigate the crime, he wonders if he did it…or if the real killer is a charming young woman, Laura, from an upper class family, he’s falling in love with.

Throughout the story, Gregory feels his sense of being a “have not” as acutely as I did as a student at Peabody Conservatory, where the book is set.

For a few years, I tried, through literary agents, to sell this book to traditional publishers. It received rejection letters that could have read as back-cover blurbs, but no one wanted to buy. World War II-era books were not popular back then, and its time period worked against me.

So I self-published it, and even managed to snag a wonderful review from a a major trade journal that said, in part:

“Blending operatic drama, sumptuous description, and noir, Sternberg gracefully puzzles out her tormented characters’ actions and motivations…” Publishers Weekly

If you’re reading this on or around the post’s publication date, check it out here for a free read. If you miss the free days, you can still give it a try!

Libby Sternberg

 

 

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Writer’s Life: How long should you wait?

I recently saw a Tweet from a literary agent who quoted a query she’d just received. I’m paraphrasing, but the query indicated the author was giving traditional publishing a shot before she opted for self-publishing. Needless to say, the agent didn’t seem impressed with that attitude.

I don’t blame her. Supplicants shouldn’t telegraph disdain to prospective benefactors. Or, to put it another way, beggars can’t be choosers.

That said, I’m not unsympathetic to the author, though, either. The publishing business moves at the pace of a languid turtle, with long wait times — to hear from agents or editors — not unusual. It might make some cringe to know I waited over two years to hear back from an editor before deciding to self-publish a manuscript. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have waited that long, but this particular editor had helped me in the past, and there had been some personnel changes at her house that had slowed the process, so I worked on other projects while I waited.

Many agents and editors do let authors know up front how long they usually take to consider submissions. They will tell writers on their websites that “if you don’t hear from me by X weeks” either feel free to follow up or, in the case of mere queries, to assume it’s a rejection because they don’t have time to respond personally to all of those. That’s a nice change from years ago when you’d wait and wait and wait and know nothing.

0-6But the key word is “wait.” You still usually have to wait a long time to hear on submissions. Unless you’ve written something so spectacularly unique that agents and editors devour it as soon as it crosses their cyber-threshold, you’re usually looking at waits of several months at the very least.

Now that I’m mumble-mumble years old, however, I won’t wait ridiculously long times anymore to hear back from editors or agents.

My goal is to share my stories with readers. While I’m still alive, if possible. 🙂

So nowadays, I do put a fuse on submissions, even if I’m the only one who knows it’s lit. Sometimes I will politely let an editor know that I’m considering self-publishing if they’re not interested and could they let me know by a certain time. I don’t set a hard and fast deadline. I might say “in a few months” or “in the spring,” and when I follow-up, I’ll gently remind them of this deadline, especially if I have the time to pursue the self-publishing tasks involved and am eager to get started.

In this way, I’m trying to be professional but frank. After all, if I knew someone else was about to make an offer on the manuscript, I’d let other editors considering the book know to give them a chance to read before I accepted that offer. In this case, I’m the one about to make the offer on my own work. I’ll move forward with self-publishing at some point and won’t wait indefinitely.

To me, the key is to marry courtesy with honesty, not to be arrogant or snarky or pompous, when communicating this approach.

Beggars can’t be choosers. But, with self-publishing options, authors are no longer always beggars.

Libby Malin’s latest novel is In Sickness and in Health. It’s available as an ebook or in paperback.

 

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Excerpt: “In Sickness and in Health”

An excerpt from my latest novel, now available at the Kindle store….

by Libby Malin

He was making her an offer: marriage, perhaps for a short time, depending on his prognosis, during which she’d live a life of luxury and leisure except tending to him. Not as nurse or maid, mind you, but as companion and dear friend. As helpmate. As hand-holder. He’d hire nurses and maids, and all Ava would have to do was manage them. He’d expect fidelity during the marriage, and she heartily concurred. Once married, she’d live up to the vows and she’d expect the same as him.

Once married—yes, she said that. She spoke with the same level of sincerity and seriousness. She told him he wasn’t crazy, that she was the one who’d originally floated the idea, and that she wasn’t about to laugh at him for taking her up on it, especially given his current situation.

They talked, in fact, as if this were a business deal. But even so, she found herself staring at him, her heart breaking thinking of the loneliness he’d probably felt after his parents passed, and then being alone again in the doctor’s office, getting bad news.

She’d felt lonely during her DC ordeal, and she’d not faced anything as grave as this.

She, too, began to feel that her “inspiration” the night she’d arrived at the beach—to marry a rich man, and the call it had prompted her to make—was some sort of quirk of Fate, leading them to each other, if only for a short time.

This, too, nudged their interaction into overdrive. There was something about a possible death sentence that made everything more intoxicating, that made colors more saturated, emotions more pronounced. Why, she might even say she loved John. Loved him as a human being in need. And who was to say: perhaps she’d fall in love with him, too. She’d always liked him. Well, in that impersonal way of high school kids. But they’d not moved in the same social circles much, so she’d just not had the chance to interact with him. After the beer-soaked proposal at the pool party, she’d even crushed on him. Until she realized he wasn’t going to ask her out. She had to admit she’d found him attractive when he’d landed on her doorstep the other day. Very attractive. And if he’d taken measures to start dating, she would have responded positively.

She squared her shoulders when they arrived at the medical center in Wilmington. Step one: be that helpmate he required. She’d signed up for that task for this day. Maybe that was the way to approach all of it, just in twenty-four-hour segments, one day after another, not looking farther than evening.

The day was tedious and stressful, and if anything was going to test her inclination to say yes, it was the frustration and boredom of medical testing. The check-in and directions to the right office. The endless papers to fill out, the same ones for the radiologist as for the medical center in general. The signature on the privacy papers—yes, she agreed when John asked if he could put her down as someone the doctors could talk to. The showing of his insurance cards, the looking up of said insurance program, the checking of blood pressure and pulse, several times, once for each location they moved to, from office, to waiting room, to private waiting area of the scan area.

The sitting around sea-green waiting rooms flipping through last month’s People magazine waiting nearly two hours for a scan because there was a technical issue with one of the two machines in the medical center, and because it turned out John was, in fact, claustrophobic, and they’d had to pull him from the room, give him a Valium, and wait for it to affect him before putting him back in the schedule. Oh, and there were more checks on his BP and pulse then, too.

All of this was done, of course, with stiff smiles on their faces, little reassuring grins as if to say, “This is going okay, isn’t it? Just a few little bugs here and there, but it’s so ordinary, so normal to have these speed bumps, so comforting to feel irritated at this, this small thing…”

Although she’d done nothing but sit and read the entire afternoon they were there, she felt as if she’d run a marathon when they finally slipped out of the building and breathed fresh air. Her muscles ached, particularly those around her mouth and eyes.

“If I heard ‘Strangers in the Night’ one more time, I would have screamed,” she said.

“Your voice would have been covered by the racket I’d make heaving a chair at the speaker system,” he said, as they made their way to his truck in the multilevel parking lot.

“At least they turned off the TV,” she said. “Watching bodies being cut up in the morgue on CSI: Miami just doesn’t seem like suitable fare for a hospital waiting room, you know?”

At that, he chuckled. So did she. And the tension of the day led them to full-out laughter as the aches left them and they relaxed, and that led to him touching her arm when they reached his vehicle, and she leaned in, and he wrapped her in a hug. And they shared their first kiss.

Not bad. Not bad at all, she thought, as his warm lips pressed against hers and he deepened the kiss. She liked that he didn’t wear aftershave, and she breathed in the clean scent of his soap, something that had a tinge of coconut oil in it, she thought, reminding her of suntan lotion and the sea.

They stayed locked in an embrace, his forehead pressing on hers, for a few moments. “Thanks,” he breathed. “It really made a difference, having someone—you—with me.”

0-6She squeezed his arm. “I was happy to do it. Really.” The tedium of the afternoon lifted, the fatigue memory misting away as well. She felt good. About herself. About life. About everything. And especially about being with John. This was Fate bringing them together.

“I think I’m awake enough to drive,” he said, but she shook her head.

“Nope. I take my duties to my future fiancé very seriously. I will drive us home.”

The corner of his mouth quirked up a bit, and she thought she noticed a visible relaxing of his shoulders. Good. She was glad if she could give that to him.

They both got in, and he leaned his seat back, confirming her belief that he really did need to unwind.

She started the engine, and after a few jolts as she got used to the brakes and action of the accelerator pedal, they were on the road south to Bethany Beach.

(c) Libby Malin Sternberg 2019

Read the entire story of Ava and John’s journey to love through bad and good health by heading to Amazon and picking up a copy of “In Sickness and in Health”!

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