Five-Paragraph Story: Written in the Sand

by Libby Sternberg

She’d seen the receipt, on top of his dresser. Maybe he’d left it there deliberately. Now she knew, and she sniffled as she threw cosmetics in her purse, her few pieces of clothing in a bag. She’d be gone by the time he got back.

When she’d met him, she’d wanted a fling, something light and fun. She couldn’t afford serious. She’d known, lately, though, that she was lying to herself about it all being a lark. He was everything she wanted in a man — sensitive, strong, creative, funny. His sense of humor was what had first attracted her to him, the way he’d joked with her when she’d served him beer at the Tap House.

She’d find a new job. Bars, restaurants, diners always needed a waitress, and she was a good one, friendly, pretty, fast and attentive. She remembered things, had practically a photographic memory, hardly had to write down orders. Swearing, she hit her balled-up fist on the dresser, causing the receipt to float to the floor. Her memory was a curse.

She couldn’t stop herself. She bent and picked up the paper, replacing it on his dresser. And then she couldn’t stop herself from investigating further. She pulled open his top drawer, and there it was, nestled among white T-shirts and gray boxers. A velvet box. The kind that only held one kind of jewelry. Her hand reached out, touched the soft cover, but then pulled back as if she’d touched a hot stove.

She’d not look at it. It would burn into her memory, and she’d weep inside whenever seeing its image in her mind. Her memory was a curse. She pulled out her phone as she left the house, calling her WITSEC contact, telling him she was on the road to someplace new.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose latest book, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Five-paragraph-stories is an occasional series, sometimes inspired, as this one is, by popular songs. “Written in the Sand” is a song by the country band Old Dominion. Video below. Previous five-paragraph stories can be found here:

 

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Five-paragraph story: Breakup in a Small Town

by Libby Sternberg

“I knew I couldn’t avoid her. That’s why I moved. As fast as I could.” He stared at the lawyer grilling him, wishing he could get his hands on his scrawny neck. Damn it, his tie felt like it was choking him. He wanted to tug at it, but did that make him look dishonest? Be still, it’s almost over. Isn’t it?

She sat, a portrait of innocence, at the defense table, that cascade of chestnut hair held back with a blue ribbon. Hell, it matched his tie. Her whole damned suit matched his tie. Jesus Christ, she knew he only had blue ties because he only had one suit, the blue-gray he now wore. It was as if she read his mind — a small smile pricked at the corners of her impish mouth. She smiled even more, a girlish grin with tilted head, signifying pity, when her lawyer asked a series of rapid-fire questions, the answers to which were all yes: he owned a pistol, he was a firefighter, he’d been upset about her relationship with his best friend.

“So, let me summarize. You owned the gun that killed your friend. You knew how to use the accelerant that started the fire to try to cover the murder of the victim, and you were mad at him for stealing your girlfriend…”

The prosecutor objected, but it was too late. Can’t unring a bell and all that. He’d be lucky not to be charged himself after she got off scot-free, dammit. Oh, and she would get off. He was sure of it. He had seen the sympathetic looks on the jurors’ faces. She was a charmer, she was. That’s how he fell for her, fast and deep.

He felt his face warm and knew he must have looked like a rocket ready to explode. But she was the explosive one, the one whose wild ways masked something dark and dangerous. She was the one who’d turned on him after he realized she was crazy. She was the one who showed up everywhere he went until he ran as if running from the devil. She was the one who’d poisoned the town against him. As the lawyers argued over each other about the objection, he caught her gaze, and he swore he heard her giggle…

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, “Fall from Grace” has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

This short story was inspired by the Sam Hunt song “Break Up in a Small Town.”

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How far is heaven?

Advent is the season of reflection, hope, reconciliation, anticipation of joy. But for me and my sister, it’s also a season of melancholy as we remember our parents. Both died in December, my father 10 years past, my mother 31 years ago.

When I was a child, I used to eagerly await my father’s return from work around five o’clock each spring and summer day. He carpooled, since we, like most families back then, had only one car. His driver would drop him off at a house three doors down on the corner, and I’d be out playing on the sidewalk of our split-level and rancher development, sun slanting its late-day rays to warm my shoulders and face, hope and happiness and lack of fear in my heart.

No sense of hunger–in those pre-air-conditioned days, I could smell my mother’s dinner cooking along with countless neighbors’.

No sense of fear–Dad always came home, and the sun always came up the next day.

No sense of longing for anything except the one thing I knew for certain would happen–my father’s wide grin when he saw me, his loping walk up the street before he greeted me, his unconditional love written all over his face. Pure joy. A kind of eternal joy, with no before or after, just an endless bliss of the present tense.

That, I think, is a glimpse of heaven.

When I wrote the novel After the War, a young nun, a main character in that saga, thinks she has died as she lies in a hospital bed. She wrestles with the fact that heaven is so “unremarkable,” so disappointing.  Unknown

I wouldn’t be surprised if some fear this, that the afterlife can’t possibly live up to the joys, the graces, the delights and blessings of this life. In earlier times, when misery abounded, when disease cut short lives, when childbirth buried mother and infant, when war and starvation made life a living hell, it might have been easier to imagine a place beyond that suffering where  every tear would be wiped from one’s eyes.

But we live in an age where diseases are conquered, where lifespans have lengthened, where communication with loved ones is easier, where art is available at one’s fingertips on screens big and small, where life is, for many in developed countries, more gentle. What kind of afterlife could compete with our best days?

Some of my “best days” now are when we as a family go to the beach, and, as I reflect on my obsession with beach trips, I realize it’s because I often find glimpses back to my girlhood there.

Not that I’m in the ocean a lot. I just like sitting on the sand, listening to those eternal waves whispering, feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders. They return to me flashes of the feelings I had as a child when future and past blended into the singular elation of waiting for the enveloping love of my father to lift me up.

 

So when I think of heaven, I don’t think of singing angels or robed figures. I think of those blistering bright moments when my father came home from work and nothing existed but the warm cocoon of love in his smile.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, “Fall from Grace,” has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.

 

 

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The Diary: A five-paragraph historical, contemporary literary, horror, romance, suspense short story

“The days grow shorter, but it isn’t just the season closing in. It’s the long winter of German occupation that looms. Mama makes plans to leave while Papa continues to believe all will be resolved and peace will reign, that we have nothing to fear! I don’t know what bothers me more now–the invasion of my beloved France or the shattering of my illusions about my father. I have thrown away the rose-scented lotion he gave me. Ah, how I loved rubbing that on my arms before bed. But it was from his trip to Germany…”

Elise closed the diary. No more entries. Was that the moment before escape? Stretching as she stood, tired from hours of translation, Elise went to the window, staring into the blue-gray gloaming at steady rain that did nothing but illuminate the grit on windowpanes in need of a good scrubbing. “Rose-scented lotion.” Rubbed on her arms every night. Elise rubbed her own arms as she sighed. Closing her eyes, she wondered what it would feel like to gently, slowly smooth a luxurious garden-perfumed ointment on her limbs before bed, anointing oneself in order to fall into the arms of Morpheus. It seemed, to Elise, like the epitome of luxury, and for a few moments she thought that her own life would find exquisite meaning if she, too, engaged in such a ritual every evening.

6358926648975702601882742274_The-Austerity-DiariesBut before her dreams could skitter along any further, a sharp slam in the hallway startled her so badly that she jumped. Now she dug her fingernails into her arms with fear, not gentleness, as she slowly turned toward the door, dreading what she would find there, knowing from recent experience what would greet her. She shuddered. She narrowed her eyes as if that would stay the inevitable vision, but she couldn’t keep them from widening when she beheld what she’d feared: the cloud of smoke. Back again. Always the smoke. To haunt her. To tempt her. To beckon her…

Down the hall and around the stairway, she flew, yelling as she went, “Dereck? Dereck! For God’s sake, Dereck, you’re burning something again!” She opened his door, which had slammed shut from the wind coming through his window. He roused himself, following her into the hall. “For the umpteenth time, man, you can’t take a nap after you put something in the oven.” In the kitchen, she growled as she waved acrid smoke away, turned off the oven, turned on the fan, and pulled blackened cookies–at least she thought that’s what they were–out and into the sink. What was this–the fifth pan he’d ruined? Hands on hips, she turned and stared at him through the lifting fog. But his disheveled look, his sleepy, doe-eyed innocence quieted her anger, and she couldn’t help but laugh. He had a speck of flour on his nose. And in his hair. And some of it was even on his jeans, accenting his muscled body. As a top New York chef specializing in French pastry, she had reluctantly agreed to coach him for an upcoming TV cooking contest. His specialty was savory, hers sweet. Looking at him now, though, in his tight-fitting T-shirt, she thought he was the sweetest thing in the world.

“I’m sorry,” he said, running his fingers through his hair. “I put them in…and was going through your great-aunt’s cookbook but…” But it had bored him, and he’d drifted off. But these thoughts he kept to himself as he didn’t want to insult Elise, good, honorable, dutiful Elise, whom he was deceiving, keeping from her his undercover work for the Recovery Agency, a group of ex-Navy SEALS who specialized in terrorism. Because of his cooking skills, he’d been selected for this mission, locating an ex-Nazi who might be partnering now with radical Middle Eastern groups. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked outside. As he saw irritation start to overtake Elise’s usual tolerant cheer, he changed the subject. “Speaking of your great aunt, did you make headway on translating her diary?” Elise had found the journal when they’d both absconded to her family’s New England home to prep for the TV show, and he was hoping it would reveal clues he needed in his search. As she opened her mouth to answer, the lights went out. But glancing out the window, he noticed they were the only house on the street going dark. Not the storm, then. His nerves crackled, and his training kicked in. Seeing a shadow run toward the front door, Dereck grabbed Elise and threw her to the floor just as glass shattered in the hallway and an explosion rocked the house. That diary held a secret all right.

Libby Sternberg’s latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been hailed as “truly a novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review. Get a copy before Amazon runs out! 🙂 

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Paul, the movie

Every time I listen to the epistle reading during Sunday service, I have the feeling I’ve walked in on the middle of a movie. What happened before? What set up this letter Paul is writing this time? What arguments were going on, disputes being debated? What did I miss?

To be honest, it was this sense of not knowing what was going on that often had me distracted during the epistle reading, just biding my time waiting for the clearer (to me, at least) Gospel.

Last year, however, I read an excellent book about Paul (Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People) that opened my eyes somewhat to this interesting, flawed, brilliant, loving, exasperating, complicated man.

The reason I say “somewhat” is because understanding Paul is still difficult, and I still do feel at times I’ve come in on the middle of his movie, this grand story of his life and how hard he tried to be a good Christian and a good leader after his conversion, using his great intellect to impart wisdom.

Wisdom–sometimes I feel as if it’s always scampering ahead of me down the path, never quite clear enough to grasp except as a vague shape.

This past Sunday, we heard part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (3:4b-14) , and this is the passage that stayed in my heart:

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

This passage comes, of course, after he lists his religious bona fides from his days before being a Christian, how upright he was, what a good follower of the law he was. But the law wasn’t enough, he found out as he caught elusive wisdom in a sunburst of epiphany. The spirit of the law, and especially the message of love that comes with it, is what’s important.

This message cuts across time, doesn’t it? It seems so simple, yet how hard it is sometimes to find and live the essence of that message as we try to follow the law…and its spirit.

After hearing this epistle passage this Sunday, my mind once again went back to the old  hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” These lines from that hymn don’t usually show up in the condensed version found in many hymnals. They are worth repeating:

“But we make His love too narrow, by false limits of our own
And we magnify His strictness, with a zeal He will not own.”

Paul’s writings are often used as reasons for being against this or that behavior or policy, but I think at the core of Paul is the core of the gospel itself, the good news of light and love, of “wideness in God’s mercy.” And that’s what I took from his letter to the Philippians.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest novel is Fall from Grace.

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Do’s and Don’ts of Self-Publishing

(If you’ve come to my blog looking for the post on what Christian fiction should not contain, it is here. I’m grateful to all those who’ve found it interesting enough to read.)

I’ve been published by traditional houses (Harlequin, Dorchester, Sourcebooks, Bancroft, etc.), and I’ve self-published, a process I’ve enjoyed. After reading an article in the Atlantic by a woman who is in her tenth year of submitting manuscripts (unsuccessfully so far) to traditional publishers, I was scratching my head as to why she didn’t self publish.

She covers that briefly in her essay: “I’ve yet to meet an author who felt their self-published literary novel or memoir generated enough sales to make up for the amount of time and money spent marketing them. And as a literary critic, I know that very few editors are willing to run book reviews for self-published works; I don’t want to spend years writing and revising a book if not even my local paper will cover it.”

I would argue that you’re going to spend a lot of time and money marketing a book published by a traditional publisher. And not every advance is enough to cover that and let you quit your day job. As to reviews…well, they’re getting harder and harder to get even in traditional publishing, and surely an author can scare up some reviews in very local papers or reading blogs. So I don’t quite understand her reluctance to try self-publishing, instead letting her manuscripts languish.

For those who do choose to self-publish, though, it’s good to be realistic about possible outcomes and the process itself. Here are my tips for writers considering self-publishing:

DO be realistic about your goals.

Self-publishing can mean earning more money from your books, reaching more people, and/or snagging more attention for your writing than you’d get if you let your book languish on a computer. Sometimes it means better outcomes than if you are traditionally published. Sometimes. But not always. You shouldn’t go into self-publishing thinking it’s going to make you a millionaire or even allow you to quit the day job. Think hard about your goals as you get ready to self-publish and ask yourself: Do these goals make the entire project worth it to you?

DON’T think you’re going to zoom on to best-seller charts.

When I first self-published some books, I went into the exercise with high hopes. I’d read the stories of other authors making much more money in self-publishing than in traditional publishing. After all, traditional publishing’s royalty clauses often mean writers don’t see a dime outside the advance for at least a year, and good luck earning out that advance unless you’re a mega-seller. So, self-publishing, where you earn higher royalties in real time, seemed a better deal.

But as time wore on, and I read more, I came to understand that most big sellers in self-publishing fall into several categories (as the author of the Atlantic article noted): they were well-known authors already, with big followings; and/or they wrote in several genres where authors have more success self-publishing than in others.

If you don’t fit into those categories, you have to realize at the outset that it will be a steep hill to climb to find your readers. But if you’ve been published by a traditional publisher, you might already know that. Few authors are best sellers even in traditional publishing. Just don’t go into self-publishing thinking it’s an instant ticket to bookselling success.

DO take care with your manuscript.

In the early days of self-publishing on Kindle many authors just smacked up MSWord manuscripts on to the Kindle platform, resulting in books with funky formatting, odd spacing and sometimes garbled text. Readers would note these things in reviews but were fairly understanding in those pioneer days. They might not be so patient now, and you’re likely to lose readers if you’re not careful and thoughtful with your presentation.

This means you might need to invest in a few things: a good copy editor, for example, maybe a cover artist, and even a digital upload specialist. It all comes down to how much you can and want to do on your own.

DON’T spend money needlessly.

When you self-publish, you are highly unlikely to get your book into stores unless you work with individual shop owners on a consignment basis. So my advice is to be careful not to throw too much money at cover design for a cover that will most likely only be seen online and often as a thumbnail.

That doesn’t mean you should go for shoddy designs, but you’d be surprised what you can do on your own, buying stock art (for around $50 an image or less) and using design templates available through Amazon and CreateSpace.

Before you complain that stock art is recognizable as such, keep this in mind: many traditional publishers use stock art. You might have even seen these images pop up across publishers and books over the years. Even so, there is so much art available these days that you can avoid overly used images if you choose wisely.

Below are two of my favorite covers (of my own books). I designed them myself using the Kindle and CreateSpace templates, after buying the stock art images. They might not be to your liking — that’s okay – but they do have a professional and evocative look that is in line with the content of the novels. I confess that I like them more than I like some professionally designed covers I’ve received from traditional publishers.

If doing covers yourself isn’t your thing, seek design services. I just wouldn’t pay an exorbitant amount for them when most people will only get to see the covers online, possibly only thumbnails, as I mentioned earlier.

The same is true for other services. I am fortunate to have a critique partner who is a freelance editor as well as author. We usually work out barter or exchange agreements when we need editing services from each other.

Whatever you do, set realistic expectations for these elements of self-publishing. Recognize that even in traditional publishing, stock art gets used. Even in traditional publishing, a copy editor or proofreader doesn’t catch everything.

These aren’t excuses for poor work. But don’t hold yourself to an unrealistic high standard that not even traditional publishers adhere to. Be respectful of your readers and their expectations, yes. But don’t think that a bespoke cover design is going to make a significant difference in sales over a nicely done cover you put together yourself using stock art. Don’t think that spending thousands on editing services is going to catch every flaw.

DO spend time on promotion.

The sad truth of today’s publishing business is that all authors must spend time and even money on promotion. Traditional houses will send out your books for review, will distribute a press release about your book, and will possibly — not always — buy space in bookstores to get your book on end caps, or facing cover out or on tables of new releases.

Other than the special placement in bookstores, though, you can do those other tasks on your own. And even if you are traditionally published, you still might end up doing some of them, sending your book to some reviewers not on your publisher’s list, reaching out to reader blogs, Facebook groups and other social media venues. The point is that if you’re holding out for a traditional publishing contract because you don’t want to do the promotion yourself, you’re likely to be disappointed. You’ll be doing it anyway.

A note about reviews: Publishers Weekly will review self-published material now, through their BookLife program. It’s a highly competitive program (but so is getting a review in traditional publishing these days) and takes a while, but the option is there.

DON’T spend too much money on advertising.

I’ve heard it said that the book business is the only part of the entertainment industry that rarely advertises directly to its consumers. Why is that? Tradition and the challenge of finding readers without spending a heckuva lot of cash on the exercise.

Traditionally, those in the book business have for many years thought of themselves as purveyors of art and culture, not base entertainment. So spending money on advertising seemed base, as well.

If you do get past that mental hurdle,  the challenge becomes finding who your customers are, how to reach them effectively with the right ad, and how to move them to a “buy” once they view the ad.

To be honest, I’m very stingy with advertising dollars. I’ve used ads on Amazon (which do move the sales needle on certain books) and on Facebook (no movement there). And I recently bought an advertising package, splitting the cost with a small press that was publishing me, on a radio show targeting Christian listeners, since my book tells the story of a Christian couple struggling with fidelity and faith. This also moved the sales needle.

Again, your challenge here is no different than if you were traditionally published, though: finding the most effective way to reach your readers. And when you’re doing an ad, no one’s going to care much if you’re published by Simon & Schuster or Your Name Books (whatever name you give your self-publishing imprint).

In Summary

Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. But it no longer carries a stigma of being “less than.” It takes effort, yes. But in today’s publishing world, a lot of that effort (promotion, in particular) is going to fall on your shoulders even with a traditional publishing contract. Authors need to have realistic expectations about both forms of publishing — traditional or self-publishing. For me, a combination of the two approaches has worked best, allowing me to continue to be in front of readers with material that didn’t fit neatly into traditional publishing niches while still pursuing traditional publishing contracts.

Libby Sternberg’s latest novel Fall from Grace is published by Bancroft Press (traditional publishing) and available wherever books are sold. It has been called a “novel for our times…that will linger in the mind and memory” by Midwest Book Reviews.

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Christian fiction should not contain…

Excuse me while I lick my wounds. My new novel Fall from Grace just received a one-star review (on Amazon and Goodreads) from someone who was offended by its language and the two scenes in it that are sexual in nature (but not overly explicit; I draw the curtain). This reviewer remarked that “there is so much in this book that should not be in a Christian book.”

I suspect the reviewer picked up the book thinking that if it’s marketed as a Christian book, it will fall into what  publishing calls the “inspirational fiction” category. This subgenre in fiction has very, very precise guidelines for what can not be contained in the book. I know the restrictions because my day job is copy editor for a major publisher.

I’ve edited inspirational fiction, and I’ve had to refer to the guidelines to double-check if, say, it’s okay for the hero to say “for Pete’s sake” (nope) or “jeez” (nope) or can he play cards (nope) or drink (of course not). He can’t kiss the heroine below the neck, and there can be no suggestion of the heroine reacting to physical affection except, well, chastely. There can also be no use of words like “heavenly” or “angelic” except in the literal sense. Oh, and no reference to Halloween, either. I could go on. Suffice it to say it’s a very restrictive genre.

Fall_From_Grace_COVERI’m not criticizing inspirational fiction’s restrictions, though. I like the idea that one can pick up these books knowing what’s (not) in them. I’ve written two myself (Kit Austen’s Journey and Mending Ruth’s Heart).

But Fall from Grace, while a Christian-themed book, is not an inspirational. You won’t find it on the shelves of a Lifeway store, for example, which stocks inspirational fiction exclusively.

The reviewer’s claim that there is so much in the book that shouldn’t be in a Christian book got me thinking, though. I would love to see the genre of Christian fiction expand beyond the restrictions of inspirationals. I’d love to see Christian and/or spiritual themes, in fact, woven through more mainstream fiction. While most fictional characters in novels are usually highly secularized individuals, most real people do pray (at least occasionally) and wonder about God. Many even go to church.

Fall from Grace covers sin–adultery. I chose to show one of the main characters in that sin (again, closing the curtain at a certain point) to convey the depth of his fall…from grace. I wanted to show his impulses, what leads him to this act of betrayal, to, yes, have the reader cringe at his sin, to be repelled by it.

The rest of the book, of course, is about whether he can overcome that sin, whether he can climb out of the pit into which he’s fallen. To convey that struggle, I did include bad language (some even spoken by “pure” characters), moral dilemmas, kissing that isn’t sweet (although it isn’t below the neck!) and the very human challenges he and his wife face as they try to figure out: What does Christ require of us?

If that kind of story is for you, then pick up a copy of Fall from Grace. But if you’re looking for inspirational fiction, don’t. Buy my other books in that category instead! (See covers below.) 🙂

To reassure readers who might consider looking at Fall from Grace, it did receive a wonderful review from another source:

“Truly a novel for our times by an author with a genuine flair for deftly created characters and engaging storytelling from beginning to end, Fall From Grace is one of those novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf.” Midwest Book Review

Inspirationals: Where faith isn't preachy; it's just not hidden     Mending Ruth's Heart_250x400

 

 

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