Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Town that Talks to the Dead

As promised, time to talk about my weekend in Lily Dale, NY. My college roommate and dear friend, Rachida, met me there, and we had some interesting experiences that made us believers. More on that soon.

Lily Dale is a spiritualist community, boasting to be the oldest and largest in the country. It's a little gated village that charges $10 per person to enter and then allows you to attend healing and message services, ghost walks, town tours, and thought exchanges for free. There are other special events throughout the summer as well.

Rachida and I attended a healing service at the Healing Temple Friday night. Here's a look at the Healing Temple:

From what I've read about psychics and spiritual healers in my research for THE DINER ON THIRD, the mediums who were performing the healing that night may have been calling on healing spirits to help them. With my limited five senses, I'd describe the session as prayer. I sat in a chair, and the healer asked if she could touch me and if there were any health concerns she should focus on. I answered her, and she went to work.

She rested her hands on my shoulders, then my neck, then my head and back and arms before saying a prayer out loud asking for my protection and health. It was peaceful and relaxing.

Let me step back for a moment and describe Lily Dale a bit to you. I don't think I could do it better than Christine Wicker, who published a National Bestseller about Lily Dale in 2003:

"Lily Dale is sixty miles south of Buffalo, tucked off the side road of a side road to Interstate 90. It's easy to miss. Little Victorian houses sitting at the edge of a lake. A settlement of a few hundred people clinging to a religion that once had millions of believers and now has only a remnant. American flags flapping from screened porches. Fountains splashing in shady little pocket parks. Big-bellied cats strolling across streets as though they own them.

"Women set the tone in this lakeside community where houses are painted in pastels. During the height of the summer season, when twenty thousand visitors come to consult the town's mediums, it resembes nothing so much as a sorority sleepover for aging sisters...Tinsel stars and crystals hang in windows. Christmas lights twinkle from porches all year long. Stone angels stand sentry on walkways, and plaster elves march across lawns."

Among these streets of cats, crystals and Christmas lights are houses with the name of their residents written on the outside. "Janice Dreshman, Medium." The 38 registered mediums of Lily Dale (if they are registered, it means they have been tested and approved by the Lily Dale Assembly) hang signs revealing whether they are open or closed, in or out, taking appointments for the day or full. If they are taking appointments, many have a clipboard on the porch. You sign your name next to the slot you want and come back at that time. Many of the readings are 30 minutes long, although longer is acceptable.

Rachida and I both did an individual reading. Since so many people are incredibly skeptical and the readings are very personal, I won't go into details. I'll only say this. There were some points my medium made that I didn't understand. She gave names of spirits who were coming through that I could not place. She offered familiar information that led me to certain conclusions, and I realize I may have been coming to those conclusions on error. But there were three things that she said that were undeniably true and so specific there was no way I could misinterpret them.

The same was true for Rachida.

Another popular attraction for the day was the message service. If you've ever seen John Edward's TV show Crossing Over, then you have an idea of what I'm talking about. One medium would lead the service and invite other registered mediums from Lily Dale as well as visiting mediums to give two or three readings each.

The mediums all had different styles. Some would say, "I'm getting someone named Charlie coming through..." And from there other details would be given to determine whom the message was for.

Other mediums would say, "I'd like to come to the woman in the third row with the green sweater."

They asked for the person receiving the message to speak up, so they could hear their voices and then they began the message. The messages were diverse. Sometimes they were from one spirit. Sometimes there were three or four spirits around someone all coming through.

Sometimes, I believed the medium was right on, by their confidence and the expression on the face of the person receiving the message. Other times, and mostly this was with visiting mediums, I thought the medium wasn't a medium at all.

I was chosen from the crowd at one of the message services at the Forest Temple (below). Again some things made a lot of sense, and others did not. In all, though it was a really interesting experience and worth it for anyone interested in checking it out or connecting with someone on the other side.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays #9

Like so many others, I was shocked to hear about Michael Jackson's death. He was incredibly talented, but his life was full of trauma and tragedy. Hopefully, he's now at peace.

Michael had his best days during my childhood, and I remember dancing to his songs in the living room. Another memory I have, though, is of a great spoof artist. You may have heard of him - Weird Al Yankovic. He satirized a few of Michael's songs, and from what I've heard Michael was a good sport about it.

When I saw Michael Jackson's video Bad on TV over the weekend, I had to laugh because I happened to know Weird Al's version better. They're incredibly similar though!

Take a look for yourself and have a laugh.

Michael's version.

Weird Al's version.

*Details on Lily Dale tomorrow...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Freaky Friday: Trip to Lily Dale

When I think back on my childhood, it's no secret I find myself writing about ghosts now. My mom was a big believer in spirits, psychics, the power of dreams, basically taking truth from things many people don't give an ounce of credit to.

Then there's my uncle. I don't think there was a weekend visit to his place that didn't involve a movie like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm, Hellraiser, Puppet Master, Amityville and so on.

My grandmother was a fan of Poltergeist and Unsolved Mysteries, especially the ghostly cases.

See where I'm going with this?

But just as I started working on my ghost hunting tales in January, I discovered a few YA book series that I loved as well. One was the Lily Dale series by Wendy Corsi Staub.

Three Lily Dale books, Awakening, Believing, and Connecting, have already been released with Discovering coming out this fall. They tell the story of Calla Delaney, a teenage girl whose mother dies in their Tampa home. Her father is taking a job in California, but she doesn't want to go. Instead, she moves with her crazy grandma in Lily Dale, New York, a village for registered mediums and clairvoyants.

I'm not going to tell you any more about what happens to Calla, but I would recommend the books. Highly.

When I read them, I wanted to pack my car and drive the simple three and a half hours north to Lily Dale, but they were closed.

Not anymore.

Lily Dale officially opens this weekend, and I'm packing my bags when I finish this post. I'm really excited and promsie to report back any eerie happenings...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays #8

Happy Monday!

Enjoy some pet humor...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Excerpt #2

If you haven't read yesterday's post yet, read it first. Then come back to this one.

Here's where we left off:

Three men, wearing jumpsuits with the letters WSP followed by four numbers, pushed aside a washing machine and crawled into the wall behind it. They didn’t look up when I appeared in the doorway. It was as if I was the spirit intruding on their lives.

I wondered if they were residual spirits. That was something I would likely have known if our director allowed us to interview people who had reported ghost sightings in the prison before, but the Pittsburgh Investigators had a rule: We go in uninformed. We don’t care if Annie Atwood saw a floating woman wearing a white gown, or if Joey Jenkins came face to face with a Civil War soldier. Prior knowledge could taint the investigation. Instead, we go in blind. We record our findings and then compare them to other reports made over the years.

I would have loved to know something about these men, to garner some way to communicate with them. In my three short years of investigating hauntings, I’d never seen an actual apparition before, let alone three at once.

And they looked so real.

Let’s get this straight. I don’t scare easily. Or at all. Under normal circumstances. But seeing three apparitions so clearly they could be human – that’s not normal. It brought on symptoms I rarely experienced: heart beating fast, breath coming short and quick, knees weakening.

If there was a possibility to get more of this on film, I was so in. I unstrapped a walkie-talkie from my belt. “Hey, guys, this is Leia in the basement. Can anyone hear me?”

I tapped my toes and counted to five.

“Anyone up there? Zito? Connor? Monica? Something pretty crazy is happening down here. Anyone?”

All I got was static.

“Forget this.” I set the walkie-talkie on top of the washing machine while I shifted two motion detectors from my backpack to my belt. Monica would want to know about something like this, but if she didn’t answer, what was I supposed to do? I was already a few seconds behind the spirits, if they were even still around. Use your best judgment, Monica would say. I took a deep breath, made the sign of the cross, squeezed my small frame behind the washer and crawled into the wall.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A novel is born this weekend, Excerpt #1

Happy Friday, everyone!

I had plans to spend this weekend in a haunted campground with a local ghost hunting group. It would have been my first ghost hunt, but rainy days prevented that.

I was particularly excited because tonight, my main character, Leia Angeletti, goes on a very important ghost hunt in the world of fiction. In fact, when I started writing my book in January, I chose tonight's date for the opening chapter (technically it's tomorrow morning at 1 a.m.). It seemed so long ago, but now it's here!

For that reason, I'm going to share Leia's experiences with you this weekend.

These are the opening pages of my young adult book. Check back often to see how the scene unfolds!

June 20, 2009, 1:01 a.m.
Chapter 1
I held the voice recorder to my mouth and said, “June 20th, approximately 1 a.m., the former Western State Penitentiary. Hello? I’m Leia. Is anyone in the room with me?”

My voice filled the basement and echoed off the cement walls.

I waited.


“I bet some painful things happened down here. Wanna talk about it?”

According to my thermometer, the air around me dropped from 60 degrees to a chilly 48. The cold and its implication made me shiver inside my Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirt.

“I know you’re here. Come on. Make a noise for me.”

Still, nothing.

“I guess you aren’t strong enough to make a noise.”

Metal crashing across the room proved me wrong. I smiled. Provoking spirits is a piece of cheesecake. That might have something to do with eternally being trapped between two worlds. That much solitude, and I’d be ready to communicate, too.

“Betcha can’t do that again.”

My provocation was rewarded by a series of noises at the other end of the basement. I switched on the night vision camera to see a mess of tools spread across the floor next to a workbench. A few nails were still rolling around.


The green light on my recorder dimmed, then faded completely. It was 1:08 a.m. Less than ten minutes in, and the batteries were already dead.

Using the light from my cell phone, I pulled two AAA batteries from my backpack, hoping the new ones wouldn’t fall victim to spirit manifestations. I brought backups to every investigation, but I wasn’t exactly a walking Radio Shack.

Across the room I heard footsteps. Looking through the lens of the night vision camera, I saw a dark figure turn the bend into what was once the prison laundry room at the end of the hallway.

I pumped my fist in the air celebrating victory, blew out a deep breath and followed, stepping lightly, but there was no escaping the loud pounding in my chest.

My family doesn’t care to understand the rush I get from “this stuff.” She’s only 17. She shouldn’t be chasing ghosts. She should be curling her hair and going to dances. If her mother was around, she would be a normal girl.

I’d heard it all. Of course my father and aunts didn’t know at that moment I was alone in the basement of one of the most haunted buildings in the state.

“And they don’t need to know,” I mouthed, so the camera didn’t pick up the words.

Instead, it hopefully recorded the sound of the boots pounding against the cement floor. They stopped in the laundry room. I could hear whispering as I approached. I stopped and coached myself through a few short breaths, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw around that corner.

More soon...

Monday, June 15, 2009

If that wasn't enough...

If Rainy Days and Mondays wasn't enough for you this morning, spend some time with the Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The parade was incredible, and seeing my personal favorite Evgeni Malkin and that gorgeous cup sparkling in the sunshine was worth the heat, the wait, the walk, and the crowd.

Above: A portion of the parade route on the Boulevard of the Allies. I love the crazed fans hanging off the parking garage! Below: Here comes the parade!

Below: The man who made it possible by saving the Pens twice - Mario Lemieux!

Above: Tyler Kennedy...Kennedy! Below: Jordan Staal came up huge, scoring a short-handed goal for the Pens in Game 4 of the finals.

Above: My number one Penguin, Evgeni Malkin with the Conn Smythe Trophy awarded to the playoff MVP. He's my personal favorite for league MVP! (Again, I may be biased). Since he's my fav, one more of Geno below...

Here comes the Cup!

Below: Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury hoists the Cup over his head with captain Sidney Crosby by his side.

Awesome team. Awesome season. Awesome parade. Thanks, guys.

Rainy Days and Mondays #7

Nobody could ask for a better weekend.

Really. It was the kind of weekend that keeps giving, even through Monday morning. But there are some people who read this blog outside of Pittsburgh who aren't feeling the exhilaration we are, and there are Pittsburghers who will be stuck in offices today during the Stanley Cup Parade for the victorious Pittsburgh Penguins.

For those, reasons, I'm happy to share the three amazing events that have me waking up happy today!


The New Kids on the Block concert was great. Kudos to Donnie for coming out on stage with a Penguins towel. He said Pittsburgh is one of the greatest cities to visit, and he's right!

I might be biased.

The New Kids sing a song called Dirty Dancing. Before they sang the song at the concert, they played a clip that made the crowd go wild. Here it is:


Wow. After listening to announcers and should-be fans saying the Penguins couldn't do it, Pittsburgh defeated Detroit in the Stanley Cup Finals. And it came down to the final seconds, just like the Super Bowl.

I'm happy to have two championship teams in the city this year, but I might have an ulcer as well.

Congratulations to Talbot, Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and the rest of the Pens. What a comeback season. Here's a look back at Game 7.

By the way the crowd goes wild when Talbot scores, you'd think it was a home game for the Pens!


I took my niece to see the Broadway Musical Legally Blonde. It's such a fun show. And again, kudos to the lead, Becky Gulsvig, who plays Elle Woods for making her curtain call with a Sidney Crosby jersey on. Go Pens!

Here's a look at the opening number for the musical.

Well, I guess this is plenty to keep you from being productive today at the office. Happy Monday!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays #6

I'm not sure where you are, but it's a gloomy day in Pittsburgh. A few months ago, a friend invited me to a concert, which is tonight, and I told her I'd be there as long as we get pavilion seats. I hate taking a chance with the cheaper lawn tickets, and the view outside my window is exactly why!

So here's a pick-me-up in honor of my concert of choice for the evening - New Kids on the Block. Work it out, Jordan!

Oh, yes. I will be doing that dance tonight! oh-oh-OH-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays #5

This adorable video has been circulating the email forward rings lately, but it's still cute enough to share for Rainy Days and Mondays. I wonder if the cat is taking on new clients...

Happy Monday!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Everything Plus One

I knew I had to be forgetting something yesterday. What list can end at 9?

It hit me as I massaged Brilliant Brunette shampoo into my hair today. Could that have had something to do with it?


10. Refer to your referrals. Referrals in query letters can be great, but don't think just because someone has endorsed your project, you're on the fast track to publication. Agents have to actually know the person who gave the referral, so give some context.

If Meg Cabot or Lee Child has told you to query Agent A with your project, context may not be necessary. However, if a lesser known author or someone the agent met in passing at a conference refers you, you should say as much.

"My friend, Name That Friend, author of Name That Book, met you at the Backspace Conference and said you're looking for paranormal YA projects. She thought you might really enjoy my book about..."

Also, quotes and blurbs aren't really necessary at this stage. Having them in your back pocket for the editor and committee at the publishing house is a good idea, though.

Happy Querying!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Everything You Ever Wanted to Learn about Query Letters...You Can Learn Online

In May, I attended two writers conferences. I realize I was very fortunate to do so, especially since finding good conferences is difficult, and sometimes paying to attend them is impossible.

Writer friends of mine and I took some great notes, and I'm hoping to share the knowledge with you - starting with query letters.

Here's my disclaimer: I'm not perfect at writing queries. In fact, I've been polishing my current query for some time now.

That said, I've done my research. Lots of research. And, I've sat in on several agent panels and heard feedback from more than 20 agents in query letter workshops.

The perfect query
My theory behind query letters reminds me of a scene from a movie, Cheaper by the Dozen 2. Steve Martin's daughter gives birth, and she tells her father the baby will be named after him. He's taught the new parents that there's no way to be a perfect parent but a million ways to be a good one.

So goes the story with queries. Writers are so often searching for the golden formula or phrase that will guarantee a perfect query.

It doesn't exist.

This is why: reading is subjective.

One agent may prefer you start a query with the genre, title and word count while another prefers you jump right into the heart of the story or the hook.

There's no one right way to write a query letter, but there are a million ways to write a good one.

Here's another secret: everything you ever wanted to learn about query letters you can learn online.

People who have written books on the subject may hate me for saying so, but it's true. Here's my (unsolicited but hopefully helpful) advice on how to develop a query letter that will make agents reply with a manuscript request so quickly it will be filled with typos (this is of course a joke - if you get an email from an agent filled with typos, be very suspicious).

Steps to writing a great query:
1. Research the art of the query letter. It's likely you've heard of that thing called the Internet. What? You're on it now? Good for you. While you're looking around, check out the following:

There are many other query resources out there, but these three have one priceless tool in common - in addition to offering some basic info, they all show you real query letters and offer critiques of them.

I've learned what has helped me the most in writing my query letter is figuring out what I should NOT be doing. Spending time (likely to be hours and days) on these sites will give you that same bit of knowledge. If you're looking for other sites, most agent blogs have a tendency to address the dreaded query letter.

2. Research the agents you're querying. A good Google search may yield a blog post or interview given by your agent of choice that highlights his or her preference in query letters. Look for specifics such as: "I prefer writers open the query by hooking me with a great story in a few sentences," "I never want to know the ending of the story in the query," "Please don't open your query with a rhetorical question," or "Begin your query by telling me the genre of the book, so I can get in the right mindframe as I continue to read."

If you're targeting an agent who has a blog, you've scored big. Scour the archives for his or her preferences on queries.

3. Tailor the query to individual agents. Once you know what the agent likes, give him or her exactly that. That said, there's something you should absolutely avoid. At the last conference I attended (Backspace in New York City), several agents said one thing that would result in instant deletion from their email accounts is a bulk email to several agents.

Agents know you're querying other agents, but they expect the courtesy of a personalized email. Another way to do this is to research the agent's recent sales on Publishers Marketplace or elsewhere and say something like, "I've decided to query you with my project because you represented xyz. My project is similar in that..."

Caution - if you say you've read a book the agent represents, be sure you did!

4. Read jacket copy. In workshops, I've heard agent after agent after agent say to learn how to write great queries, read the back cover copy of the books you like. In many cases, good query letters attract agents who use them to attract editors who use them to sell your books (in other words, good query letters eventually become jacket copy). The intrigue created by the cover copy is exactly what agents want to see in your query.

5. Seek a second, third, tenth opinion. To make it in the publishing industry, you need good readers, people who are willing to say when something is off and when something is great. If you're in a writing group, ask the members to critique your query. If you're part of an online group like Backspace, you may find a place in the forums to post your query and seek opinions. If you read this blog and would like my opinion on your query, send it right over.

FYI - It's ideal to get someone who knows nothing about your book to read your query.

Ask your readers if they find the story interesting. If they do, ask when they felt themselves thinking, "Hmmn. This could be really cool." Was it in the first sentence? Hopefully. If it was in the third paragraph, you may consider moving that "Aha" moment to the first sentence.

6. Query widely. As I mentioned, agents want to know that you selected them among the hordes of literary agents out there, but you're not married yet. Agents DO NOT expect you to query exclusively, wait weeks or months for a response (mathematically, the response will likely be a rejection), and then query another agent. You want to score representation and sell your book, right? So query, query, query!

7. Maintain communication. At the query stage, it's not necessary to inform agents you're querying elsewhere. They expect as much. When agents start requesting your manuscript (Yea! Congratulations! Have a cocktail!), be aware that's the time to maintain communication with them, especially if they request the full manuscript.

This does not mean you should call them at home like you're old pals.

Here's the thing, reading a full manuscript takes lots of time, which is something agents don't have much of. If they're going to read your ms (manuscript) on a weekend, feverishly taking notes, to call you Monday and offer representation, they want to know if another agent is doing the same thing.

Consider this scenario - Agent A requests the full ms. You jump up and down until you're sick, fear all the uncorrected typos you must have somehow missed, stare at the "Send" button in your email account, and finally click it to jump up and down some more. You check your email ten minutes later and wonder why Agent A has not gotten back to you with an offer of representation yet. Time passes, and you forget about Agent A, relatively speaking in the sense that you're able to function in daily tasks.

Then, while checking your email to see if Agent A has figured out you're the next Stephenie Meyer/Stephen King/Janet Evanovich/Jodi Picoult, (*Note: Don't mistake delusions such as agent responding in 10 minutes and soaring to celebrity author status as rational thought), Agent B emails to request a full ms.

Repeat jumping up and down sequence. But in addition to emailing Agent B the full ms, you should inform said agent that another agent is also reviewing the full. Then, email Agent A with the words "Update: (Your Title)" in the subject line to courteously inform Agent A of Agent B's existence. This is a great situation for you. I have heard many agents say such an update/friendly warning encourages them to move more quickly on your work.

8. Be patient. This isn't really step eight.

It could be applied at all points in the process. Once you finish your book, you're likely to be so excited to get it in the hands of an agent. You should be. Congrats on finishing that book!

But, take some time to perfect your query. Take some time to research your agents of choice. Take some time to rewrite the query 15 times to 15 different agents (keeping in mind the core paragraph(s) about your story as well as the bio paragraph will stay the same, but the order and/or the paragraph detailing why you're sending to that particular agent will change).

And remember, sending out a query before it's ready is like burning a bridge to the mainland.

9. Query again? Since I've gone and thrown out the "burning bridges" cliche (I've slapped my hand for that one), I'll add that there's a debate for whether you can requery the same project to an agent if he or she has rejected it once.

If you change your query significantly, agents may not notice. I've even heard some agents say, "Go ahead. I'll never know the difference." Yet, I attended a workshop last week where an agent recalled a query she had seen from a writer in the group nearly a year ago. A year!

I also witnessed a fit of giggles from a panel of agents who apparently have received the same query letter from the same author for the same project enough times that they all know him by name (and laugh when it's mentioned).

So, query again? Do so with caution.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays #4

Don't let Monday get you down. Here's a tidbit of inspiration to get you through the day.

"I have missed over five thousand shots in my career. I've lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot - and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life...And that is why I succeed." - Michael Jordan

Happy Monday!