Do you remember your first time?

Reading your favorite mystery novel, that is. What did you think I was talking about? Get your mind out of the gutter and join me as I talk about the first time I read a book by one of my favorite authors, Sue Grafton.

Back in the early nineties, I was working at a home for unruly children. There’s probably a better term for this, but at the time that’s what I called it. I worked the third shift and part of my duties included sitting in the back hall at night and making sure that the girls on the unit stayed in their rooms. I occasionally had to walk around and check each room to make sure that they were, in fact, sleeping and not hurting each other. For the most part, they behaved, so it was a fairly easy assignment. We were allowed to read while we sat in the back hall, since there was really nothing else to do. So, one night I grabbed a random book from the shelf in the office before venturing back to my post. The title was, simply enough, “B is for Burglar.” I thought it sounded fairly mild and that it wouldn’t require much thought on my part, so it seemed like a good choice. Little did I know that waiting for me beyond that cover were pages of a story that would inspire me to start writing my own mystery series.

It was around 1993 or ’94 and the book had been published in 1985. The author, was Sue Grafton. One of the reigning queens of mystery (in my opinion). And after reading this book, which was the second book in the series, I immediately went in search of the first book. And from there, I later read every single one up to the very last book Grafton published before she passed away in 2017. I read them in paperback and listened to the audiobooks throughout the years, sometimes several times over. They were comforting, in the way that old television reruns are a comfort. And when I needed inspiration or just motivation to keep going, listening to Kinsey Millhone work her way through a case without the help of the internet, cell phones, or other modern-day accoutrements was refreshing. It reminds me that anything is possible no matter what it may look like on the surface.

In 2006, I actually received some advice in a letter from Ms. Grafton. Unfortunately, it was not what you’d call uplifting. It was early in my writing career and I had stupidly sent her a copy of my first book, In the Wash: The Rona Shively Stories. She had read a few chapters and then decided to let me know that my work was substandard, in her opinion. I had been so hurt by her feedback that for a time, I couldn’t even look at her books for several years after that. In the letter, she made the snap judgement that my first attempt at a hard-boiled private eye novel was something I’d not taken seriously and implied that my motivation was simply to be published quickly and get famous. She decided this without knowing anything about me and I was so absolutely deflated by her comments that I nearly trashed the whole writing thing. But I knew that my motivation had never been anything so lame or pretentious as just wanting to be published or popular, so I decided to press on. She had no idea how many hours I’d spent in the library researching all of the pieces of the plot I’d put together in my head. She had no idea that I’d been discouraged from being a writer when I was still a teenager and that I’d only just picked it back up after nearly fifteen years of not writing. She had no idea that the birth of my first and only child had inspired me to try writing again. Or that reading her books was why I had decided to write a book in the first place. She just assumed that I was another of hundreds of amateur writers who would never put in the kind of time and energy she’d put into her novels. But she was wrong. She was an excellent author, but God rest her soul, she knew nothing about me, my personal struggles, or what kind of writing I was capable of and her criticism became the number one reason why I went on to write books two through ten of The Rona Shively Stories series.

Eventually, I did read the rest of her books, as I indicated above. I read the whole series and was always impressed by how she could weave a story together so vividly and with so much detail. She was an excellent writer and I’m truly sad that she did not get to finish the Kinsey Millhone series. It’s probably one of the greatest injustices a writer can suffer; leaving a great series unfinished. But no one will ever be able to write Kinsey like she wrote Kinsey. And no other author should want to do that. As authors, we should want to write our own characters in the way that we want to write them. And we should write unapologetically, using our experiences and the skills that God has given us to create stories of our own; stories that will speak to readers as no other author’s stories can. Her words may have ripped my heart out at the time (even if that wasn’t her intention), but in that pain I found what I needed to justify writing Rona the way I wanted to write her. She was my character and my characters don’t always know everything they need to know when they need to know it. My characters are on a journey, trying to figure out what it all means and why we bother.

Ultimately, Grafton’s words did motivate me to become a better author and to help others get their stories out there (hopefully without ever making them feel as low as I felt back then). I’ve always felt that there is more than enough room on the stage for all of us. Writers who have just started and writers who have been around a while. And I never saw the logic in making someone feel terrible about their writing if they had the courage to at least try it. Everyone has a story to tell; some may not be as exciting or endearing as others, but they don’t have to be. We can all learn from one another’s experiences and if someone wants to try and share those experiences in a book, what harm does it do to encourage them to do just that? As a publisher now, I always try to look at the stories I receive through the lens of someone who is looking for advice in whatever the subject mater area presented in a manuscript may be. Some are a fit for my company, some aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about writing. Or that they shouldn’t bother. We can’t all be Sue Graftons or Lisa Scottolines or James Pattersons or Janet Evanoviches (pardon the pluralization on these). It would be ever so boring if we all were. I’d much rather be Rebecca Benston writing Rona Shively and reading all of these other great authors who have given me such inspiration and joy over the years. I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Rebecca Benston is the owner of Higher Ground Books & Media and the author of over twenty titles currently available through Amazon and other outlets. Her books include a mystery series (The Rona Shively Stories), empowerment resources such as Wise Up to Rise Up, Don’t Be Stupid (And I Mean That in the Nicest Way), and From Judgment to Jubilee, children’s books including Grumble D. Grumble Learns to Smile, All the Scary Things, and See How Strong You Are. Benston lives in Springfield, Ohio with her awesome daughter, Mya and enjoys traveling, reading, writing, and telling it like it is. She enjoys being able to help other authors get their stories out there through Higher Ground and has recently expanded her freelance services to offer more extensive guidance as a writing coach and social media manager. For more information, you can contact Benston at highergroundbooksandmedia@gmail.com.

Another Trip Around the…Sun?

Take a moment and watch this video, good song!

Trip Around the Sun

Well, let’s hope so.  I swear, looking back over the last twelve months of my life I would have thought there might be a few more victories there.  Sadly, I was doing pretty much the same thing this time last year as I am today.  On my 39th birthday, I was traveling to Cincinnati for a job interview which didn’t pan out and I was in relational negotiations with a loser.  That’s a nice way of saying that I was in mid-breakup with a guy I was trying to date.  It’s not like I didn’t accomplish anything, though.  At least this year, it was a different guy and I really did make some changes that I feel will turn out to be the right thing.  I just haven’t seen the fruits of those efforts yet.  It makes it difficult sometimes to keep planning ahead and to keep pushing toward new goals.  But in truth, I’ve been anticipating this day.  My fortieth birthday.  I’ve wanted so badly to be out of my thirties and now, I’m here.

Turning forty is a major milestone for me because it represents a fresh start after all of the upheavals and defeats suffered during my last decade.  My thirties represented the birth of my child whom I love more than life itself, the rise and subsequent fall of my marriage, the loss of some very important family members, the difference between admiration, infatuation, and true love, the realization that maybe I’m not cut out to do what counts as “real work” in this society, and an even bigger realization that I’m really not the one whose steering this ship.  I’m hopeful, that with God’s grace, I can move on to do something meaningful with the rest of my days on this earth.  And even though it often seems like nothing is happening, I know He is working in my life.  He’s certainly had me in a season on reflection and learning for the last ten years or so.   And I think I’m finally starting to form a clear picture of what He’s been trying to show me.

Looking back on the last twenty years, I can see where these times have helped me grow and where what I thought were the toughest trials I’d ever faced made me stronger.  God has a way of showing us who we are when we aren’t really paying attention.  All this time, I thought some of the things I were doing were just being done out of my inability to follow Him correctly.  As it turns out, it was part of His plan to help me overcome the most daunting strongholds that I still had in my life.  So, for my fortieth birthday, I’m giving myself the gift of giving up.  I’m giving up on things and people that are bad for me.  I’m giving up on relationships that hold no promise other than to hurt me and stall my progress.  I’m giving up what I believed to be control of my life to Someone who is better equipped than myself to guide me through this mess.  I’m giving up on trying to be what everyone else wants me to be.  And in doing so, I’ll be giving up on being frustrated and finally allowing myself to enjoy being the person God made me to be.  Yes, after forty years, I think it’s time I started being myself.  Maybe this trip around the sun will be more than just another trip around the same mountain.  I’ll get back to you on that…but in the meantime, have a wonderfully, blessed day!

It really can’t be over…

Summer, that is. Usually, I spend this time during my year to work on writing, promoting and generally winding down from what I do during the school year. Since I work in an elementary school, I have to fortunate privilege of being on vacation during the summer months. This year, the plan was to have been: finish writing Rona #5, work on revamping my websites, schedule more Tea & Mystery events, and fit in a few moments to get centered. Unfortunately, my summer consisted of the following: moving, going through some very stressful and emotional times, writing just enough to piss myself off, being frustrated, pissing a few others off, starting a new college program and being frustrated with my inability to concentrate, trying to redefine my life, and going back and forth to complete a leftover project that I had to do for work. Generally, I’m upbeat. I like a challenge and I really enjoy staying busy. This year, however; the challenges were not those which I would readily welcome into my life next year. In fact, if I never meet these particular challenges again, that will be just fine with me.

As I look at the next few months, I wonder how it will all work. I’m in classes online that require a great deal of attention. I will be returning to work full-time next Wednesday at a new school this year. My daughter goes back to school the following Wednesday. My divorce will likely be finalized within the next month. I only have about 200 more pages left to write on Rona #5 and the only Tea and Mystery I’ve been involved in over the past few months has been right here in my living room. Frustrating. Stagnant. Agonizing. The only thing left to do is this: hold a contest!

The winner will receive a complete set of Rona Shively books! In the Wash, Under Lock and Key, Keeping the Faith, and This Side Up! Here’s what you have to do to enter: E-mail me your best guess at who is going to die in the next Rona Shively book. If you’ve read them, you’ll know that there are at least five possible victims including Rona herself. I already know the answer of course, but let’s see what you’re thinking. Send me your guess and I’ll pick from the entries to see who gets the prize! It’s easy! I’ll post the results of all of the guesses I receive on the blog for fun. Someone is going to die, but who will it be? Sleuth it out, people!

A contest is a great way to end the summer, so send your entry to me by August 31st for your chance to win! Until next time…

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To POD or not to POD…

Why does that have to be the question? I’ve been attempting to set up book signing events over the past week and am having little to no luck because my books are Print On Demand (POD). As you may or may not know, there is a huge stigma attached to having a book that is published as a POD. I have to work very hard to convince bookstores that it is worth their time to have me come in and I believe that this is largely due to the fact that the books are POD. Another problem is that my publisher, PublishAmerica decides arbitrarily when to change the status of my books from returnable to non-returnable. This can be a little irritating since I am not personally notified by the publisher of these changes in status. I have been talking with bookstore managers and in the process of trying to set up an event, they have been the ones who informed me that my book is no longer returnable. And, this status can change several times a year depending on what appears to be my publisher’s mood.

I’m not bashing PublishAmerica here, so please don’t get the impression that they have done something wrong. It’s simply a lapse in communication. This is pretty much the only issue I have had with PublishAmerica and as things go, there will always be something. My real frustration lies in the fact that in order to get my books into the hands of readers, I am faced with several challenges. I can either purchase my own books and do a consignment arrangement with bookstores who do this sort of things or I can beg and plead with other bookstores until I convince them that they should order my book and have me come in to their stores. Unfortunately, neither option is very appealing, nor are they practical.

For one thing, I don’t have the cash on hand to purchase my books in bulk. I work part-time at a low-paying job and I really only make enough money to pay for daycare and groceries and the like. This is how it is with most people. For another, my books are expensive. A drawback of being with PublishAmerica is that you do not get to set your own price for your books. I can accept this, however, it does become an issue when I have to purchase the book for my own purposes. It is only on a rare occasion that I can get them at a special discounted rate. Generally, that occurs when I have no “extra” money lying around which is pretty much anytime you might ask me. Again, I’m not bashing, just laying it out there.

The idea of calling around until I’m blue in the face to set up events is one that I dealt with last year after In the Wash was published. I called and called and begged and pleaded and then called some more. I was turned down more often than not. I did manage to get into several bookstores, however, as I call the same places this time around, I am getting rejected. Even at stores where I sold out, they are telling me that management has changed and the process for scheduling book signing events is not as simple as it once was. This is quite the bubble-buster.

So, after taking a couple of months off from trying to do appearances, I am facing a dilemma. Do I simply market via the internet and keep my fingers crossed that a bookstore or library group will ask me to stop by? Or do I keep calling and facing impending rejection until I can get myself published by someone who isn’t POD? Since my initial thought is that it shouldn’t matter who publishes my books, what matters is whether or not they are good, I am guessing that I’ll continue to fight the good fight. Trying to convince people that POD is not necessarily a bad thing is an uphill struggle.

I am branching out into some other arenas, however. Over the next couple of months, I am working on a project which I intend to self-publish. This one should be interesting. It’s a women’s self-esteem project for which I have been collecting data. I intend to have it finished and ready for sale by the first of the year. In addition, I am to be part of a horror anthology for my friends at Triad Publishing. My short horror story, Eleven will be included in this publication sometime next year. I am also working diligently to make the third book in the Rona Shively mystery series a novel-length story. In hopes of gaining entry into the mainstream publishing world, I am going for it. With all of this on my plate, I’m enthusiastic even in the face of rejection. Hopefully, I’ll gain momentum as I go along.

Until next time…