Monday, March 9, 2015

I co-edit a nonfiction book review blog called with my cousin Annmarie Ortega. The following blog originally appeared there recently. It's on one of my favorite topics this spring. I hope you're inspired!

The global climate change movement howls about the evils of carbon in the atmosphere, but most ignore how important carbon is to the soil. It's vital to the health of plants and, in turn, to the health of everyone and everything that eats those plants. In other words, it's vital to us all. But humans have spent thousands of years taking lousy care of the soil, and we've only gotten worse as the centuries have passed. As a result, the carbon content of our soils has been severely depleted. So what to do? Read books, of course! This is a book review site, after all.

Organic is so last year. Sustainable isn't enough. We need to take action that regenerates the planet. That's a substantial part of the message in Kristin Ohlson's book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet. Yes, organic and sustainable are good, and they're certainly way better than factory farming and pesticides, but there's more to it than that. We need to heal the soil by replenishing carbon, which will help heal the environment. The idea is that when carbon leaves the soil, it must go somewhere, which means it ends up in the atmosphere. Ohlson points out that even without burning fossil fuels, the carbon build-up in the atmosphere will persist if we don't change our damaging farming and land use practices. We need to put that carbon back in the soil where it can help us instead of kill us.

Want more fuel for your carbon fire? Try Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country by Courtney White. For the animal lovers among us, pick up a copy of Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith D. Schwartz. An advantage of these books and others like them is that they leave readers feeling hopeful. We're not at the mercy of polluting mega-corporations or factory farms or genetic engineers. Individuals can take meaningful action in their own backyards and at their local grocery stores.

Start planning your spring regenerative gardens now and be optimistic about our planet's future!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Stay in Your Lane

The problem with other people is that they make me feel inadequate. Totally not their fault, of course. It's all on me. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Of course, thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt makes me feel inadequate, too. Did you know she was married to a president and was a staunch advocate for civil rights, women's rights, and human rights? She gave her own press conferences!

Anyway, regardless of Eleanor Roosevelt's awesomeness, the fact is that I often start my day feeling pretty good about myself. When my shoes match, there's gas in my car, and the kid at the coffee shop calls me Miss instead of Ma'am, it seems like everything's coming up Kim. But then I make the mistake of striking up a conversation with someone – at work, or writing group, or the coffee shop. That person tells me about their excellent promotion at work. Or how they sold their house in 12 hours for more than the asking price. I notice that not only do their shoes match each other, but they also match the handbag and belt.

Suddenly I'm deflated. So what about my stupid matching shoes? This kid serving me coffee and calling me "Miss" just sold his late grandfather's 1964 Mustang for $50,000.

Logically I know that if someone else is successful or looks good or has generous dead relatives, it doesn't diminish me, my choices, and the great things I have. But logic doesn't have any bearing on feelings. I'm still left with a case of petty jealousy and second-guessing every decision I've ever made that led me down a path to not buying the matching handbag or finding a valuable 50-year-old car in my garage.

The other day I was at the coffee shop – again. Don't judge. I've seen you there, too. At the next table was a young woman complaining to an older woman who appeared to be her grandmother that some girl she had gone to high school with had just gotten married to a successful lawyer and bought a house.

The grandmother said, "You want to get married? What about college?"

"No, I don't really want to get married now," the girl replied. "But I'm living in a dorm room the size of a refrigerator box and spending half my life studying at the library. Meanwhile a girl my age – who was always a jerk in school, by the way – married a guy with money and gets to decorate her new four-bedroom house. It's crappy."

Grandma smiled and patted her granddaughter's hand. "Stay in your lane, sweetheart."


"Stay in your lane. Keep your eyes on what's ahead of you and work toward your goals. If you focus on what everyone around you seems to be doing, you'll go crazy."

"That's easy to say, but I'm staring down the barrel of two more years of dorm food and a date with the library every Saturday night just to get my bachelors degree. Then more years for dental school, then paying back student loans. By the time I get around to finding a husband, we'll have to spend our honeymoon in the retirement home."

"Think of the money you'll save on the reception if your guests only eat Jell-o and Ensure," Grandma said with a chuckle.

The girl groaned, and Grandma added, "Like I said, stay in your lane. You made your choices and they're good ones. They're not easy to accomplish, but they're worth accomplishing and you'll be so glad when you're running your own dental practice. Meanwhile, this friend of yours might not be so lucky in the future. I hope things work out well for her, but you never know what's really going on in someone else's life. What if her lawyer husband is an arrogant pain in the neck? Or the roof on her new house leaks? What if the place is built on an ancient burial ground and it's haunted?"

"Haunted? Seriously?"

Grandma shrugged. "You just never know what's going on in someone else's lane. It could be haunted. The important thing is to keep your eyes on your lane and don't worry about what's going on in someone else's."

That's about when I thought I should stop eavesdropping on the conversation. Grandma seemed pretty smart, and I didn't want her to notice that some strange woman in the coffee shop was hanging on her every word.

No, the irony isn't lost on me that by eavesdropping I picked up some great advice about staying in my own lane and not focusing on what other people are doing. But irony aside, Grandma reminded me that I'm not in some imaginary competition with the rest of the world. It's better to ignore everyone travelling on either side of me and just focus on my road ahead. There are 7 billion ways to live a life in the world today, and I can't do all of them. It doesn't matter if the people travelling on either side of me are driving $50,000 inherited Mustangs or carrying Coach bags or are speeding to their literary agents' offices to sign multi-book contracts. Stay in your lane and be grateful that I have a car, was able to pull on a pair of shoes – matching or not – and had enough gas to get on the freeway.

But still, that classic Mustang would be a sweet ride.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Third(ish) Time's the Charm

New Stones cover!

The third time's the charm. I certainly hope so. At least when it comes to book covers for my novel Stones of Abraxas. Technically, Stones has had four covers, which means "Fourth time's the charm," but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Plus, one of those four covers never actually landed on a published copy of the book. It was a shame, too, because that was a cool cover. Unfortunately, the publisher who had commissioned it went out of business before the book ever came out. Such is the horror lurking around the corner for every author.

Original 2006 cover
Anyway, back to my third time's the charm book cover. Stones of Abraxas is my first published book. It's a funny, exciting young adult fantasy novel that was released in 2006 by Medallion Press. Its cover was an awesome original oil painting that depicts one of my favorite scenes from the book. Days before the book's release, though, that nameless horror lurking around the corner jumped out right in my face: Medallion Press announced that they were ending their young adult line. I ran around like a woman possessed, arranging book signings and author visits, but without a publisher to help with promotion or to publish the Abraxas sequel, there was little hope. The book was out of print quickly.

That's when I found Publisher #2. They wanted to re-release Stones, and they were going to publish the sequel Heroes of Abraxas. Much rejoicing ensued at the Sullivan household. One morning I received an email from Publisher #2 with a beautiful cover for the new edition of Stones. We needed new cover art since the first Stones cover belonged to Publisher #1. The new cover was beautiful, though, and the rejoicing at chez Sullivan continued. Then, that very afternoon, another email arrived. This one said that Publisher #2 was going out of business. My book was losing yet another publisher – and this one before the book was even released. The rejoicing ended abruptly.

First self- pubbed cover
 Shortly after this literary tragedy, I got the bright idea to self-publish my Abraxas books. I was still getting the occasional email from people who had read Stones and who wanted to know what happened in the sequel. So I researched cover artists and chose one who wasn't insanely expensive. The resulting covers were colorful, and the finished books from Create Space, Smashwords, and Kindle Direct were high quality. I was even able to edit Stones just the way I wanted it since I was my own publisher. But sales were disappointing.
One day I was browsing Twitter and read a Tweet from a company called SelfPubBookCovers. It said that if you've got a good book, but it's not selling, maybe the cover's to blame. I liked my colorful self-pubbed Abraxas covers, but in truth, I had always suspected they looked too young for the books. These are young adult books with main characters who start off as 12 and 14 years old. The kid on the cover of Stones looks like he's in kindergarten. 

Abraxas sequel

That Tweet got me thinking, so I asked my writing group what they thought of the covers. Frowns around the table. Suggestions about where I could get a new cover. Ideas about what the covers should look like. The next thing I knew, I was pouring over the zillions of book covers that artists have for sale at I ended up selecting two by the artist diversepixel, and she even helped me customize them for my books at no extra charge.

Check out the phenomenal results here and at the top of this blog. Better yet, visit my website for excerpts of the books.

The moral of this story is: You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but since everyone does, yours better be awesome.

Monday, November 17, 2014

An Artist by Any Other Name

The other day, a friend told me she was looking for a new job. She said, "I'm an artist. I should be treated with respect and professionalism." Setting aside the obvious questions about why artists in particular should be treated more respectfully than the average person, her statement got me thinking. What exactly is an artist? My friend is a costume designer, which means she envisions the costumes for a production, draws sketches, makes the costumes – sometimes from scratch, and evaluates the effect once they're on the actors. Yes, definitely an artist, even though it's beyond the typical definition of artist that I'd always had in my mind.

That realization demanded a closer look. Visual artists, recording artists, writers, dancers, and actors are commonly considered artists because they use their creativity to express themselves through their media. But the list shouldn't stop there. If a painter or sculptor is an artist, then isn't an architect who designs entire buildings? Or an interior designer who plans a room to look and feel a certain way? If a singer is an artist, then so is the drummer and the band leader since they contribute to the overall sound of music in their own unique way. And if a writer is an artist, then how about the person who designs and lays out the book? He or she has a vision for how the book should look and wants to make it visually appealing to the reader. If actors are artists, then aren't directors and sound engineers and the guy who runs the light board for a play? They all have a vision and are working toward the same goal.

That train of thought then leapt the track and arrived at people who are not involved in traditionally "artistic" businesses at all. How about teachers? Are they artists? They all have their own individual visions for how their classes should be taught in order to best help their students learn. Each one adds his or her own flair to the process. Isn't that what being an artist is all about? Self-expression and creativity and individualism. How about a doctor or nurse? Each one does the job a little differently and adds something new to how each patient is treated. Most people would agree that on top of the science, there's also a great deal of art that goes into doing those jobs. That's true whether it's a doctor deciding on the best cancer treatment for a particular patient's circumstances or a nurse determining how to comfort a frightened child.
That got me thinking about pursuits that aren't necessarily jobs, but which are often performed with artistic zeal. Creativity can be expressed through gardening or cooking Thanksgiving dinner or designing an exercise routine that's not boring. Putting together playlists that evoke a certain mood. Organizing a charity run that brings together 100 people and raises $25,000 for a good cause. Getting six children up, washed, dressed, fed, and on the school bus every morning. All of these examples as well as millions of others are artistic in their own way. How one person plans and executes them can be entirely different from how someone else will. Each person expresses himself or herself differently through how they complete the tasks. One mother might organize her children with Von Trapp Family-like precision, while another might figure that the only way children will learn responsibility is by oversleeping, missing the bus, and having to walk four miles to school.

This idea that everyone is an artist is satisfying to me. If a particular fast food chain wants to call its employees "sandwich artists," that's just fine because they are artists. No two sandwiches will be identical. Some employees will work with more flair and self-expression than others, but they still do things their own way to some degree. And that difference, that uniqueness, is where the art comes in. So take a bow, fellow artists! We all deserve to be treated with respect and professionalism for what we do and how we express ourselves while we're doing it. And we all deserve our own televised awards shows hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, too! Okay, maybe one step at a time.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Walker Stalker Fail

I'm too clueless to stalk celebrities. It's a shame, too, because I live in an area where they do a lot of filming for The Walking Dead. If I were any good at being a "Walker Stalker," as they're commonly known, I'd have lots of opportunities to practice. But sadly I don't have a firm enough handle on what's happening around me to be much use as a celebrity stalker. Take this afternoon's adventure as proof of my point.

Today I was having lunch at the Senoia Coffee Shop, which is across the street from where they're currently filming Walking Dead. I know that multiple cast members are onsite because friends have met them this week, pictures of them have been taken at this very coffee shop within the past couple days, and I can actually see the cast members' trailers from the table where I'm sitting outside the restaurant. It's not as if I don't have a heads-up that there might be a celebrity sighting. Despite that, I've got my glasses off and my nose buried in the notebook I'm writing in.

The server had just dropped off my chai latte when two girls walked up to the restaurant with a dog. As usual, I ignored the people and focused on the animal. I said, "What a cute dog!" One of the girls said, "Excuse me?" I replied, "I like your dog." The girls gave me a strange look, tied up the dog, and went into the coffee shop. Then a herd of excited fans ran over. They told me the girls with the dog are Maggie and Tara from WD. The fans seemed shocked that anyone could be as oblivious as I was and not recognize the stars. Join the club. I was pretty disappointed in myself. Although, to be fair, he's a really cute dog.

So, to sum up, in my one brush with greatness, I managed to make two stars of one of my favorite shows think that I didn't know who they were. Technically that was because (at the time) I didn't know who they were. Well played. I can hardly wait to see how I inadvertently insult the stars of my other favorite shows. Maybe someday I'll meet James Spader from The Blacklist and ask if he used to be thinner when he was on Boston Legal. Or maybe I can ask any guy from Game of Thrones if he stuffs his codpiece. And I shudder to think what kind of ridiculousness will pop out of my mouth if I ever meet anyone from Grimm. Maybe from now on I should just stay home and leave celebrity stalking to the professionals at TMZ.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ant Mission Accomplished

            My fear had been that the scene at the Ant Man extras casting call this morning would look like those American Idol auditions where entire stadiums are bursting with thousands of people while Randy Jackson lurks around calling people "Dog." Fortunately, that didn't come to pass. No one called me dog – not to my face, anyway – and the number of people who showed up seemed entirely manageable. Yes, there was a long line that wound through a parking lot, and we had to stand in the sun in that parking lot for over an hour, and I was wearing hot dress slacks so I'd look like a "business woman," but it was way better than it could have been, and we met some nice people.
            The hopeful extras were dressed in all sorts of different outfits. I had originally been told by an actor friend that I shouldn't dress up because it would make me look nuts. But yesterday Pinewood Studios posted a request that attendees show up dressed in a costume that reflects the character they would like to play, the "dress normal" dictate flew out the window. Hence the business suit sans suit coat that you see here. I'm the one on the left.
            The lovely lady to my right is my neighbor Wendy. She's a great neighbor because she's up for doing all sorts of goofy things with me. She was totally enthused about going to this casting call. She was also enthused about stopping at IHOP for brunch at 11 a.m. when we got done at the studio. A perfect morning, really.
            At the studio, we were ushered into the blessedly cold air conditioning once we worked our way to the front of the line, then we stopped by a table to check in. Then it was off to a photographer for three quick snapshots, then back to the parking lot. And on to IHOP. That last bit wasn't a required part of the casting call, but it really made for a nice capper on the morning. Did you know IHOP has cheese-stuffed French toast? I love this country.
            It's unclear when we'll hear anything from the studio about becoming extras. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long for those lucrative movie contracts to start rolling in, but I'm not holding my breath
            Even though I'm not counting on the cash from being an extra, some folks seem to have an inflated idea of how easy it is to get one of these extras gigs and how much cash you can earn this way. One of the women I met at the casting call today said she wants to be an extra because she needs the money. She's got bills to pay, and she thinks this is a great way to pay them off. Sure, most people with financial concerns would go get a job, rather than waiting for an unlikely shot at earning $100 as an extra for a couple days. But who am I to judge? Maybe when I hunker down in my movie seat to watch Ant Man next year, that woman will be on screen, her face 10 feet wide. And maybe she'll look relieved because she's paid all her bills with easy movie money.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Great Wall of Ant Man Casting Calls

The Great Wall of Senoia, Georgia is proceeding apace, surrounding an entire neighborhood with 15-foot-tall corrugated steel. As of two days ago, the gates hadn't been put in place yet, but that's clearly on the way because filming behind the wall is supposed to begin next month. I for one am eager to have The Walking Dead's cast back in town, giving Senoia residents and visitors a chance at snagging an autograph or a photo. Is it weird if I start carrying a 112-ounce can of chocolate pudding and a Sharpie everywhere I go?

Meanwhile, Ant Man is being filmed at Pinewood Studios in nearby Fayetteville, Georgia. They're doing an open casting call on Saturday for extras. They need scientists, business people, "ravers," and military types. I've never gone to one of these before, but this just sounds too cool to pass up, so I'm going to try and convince someone that I look believable as a scientist or business person.

I got some advice from an actor friend of mine who has attended open casting calls in her career. She says I shouldn't dress for the part (i.e. no lab coats or briefcases) for fear of looking like a nut job. Wearing my glasses to make me look smart is acceptable. (Wasn't that Sarah Palin's strategy?) My friend also advises wearing a solid color top because they'll be taking pictures and I don't want my outfit to look busy. I also asked what time to show up. The casting call is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., so do I arrive right at 10 a.m.? Or should I be there earlier to get in line? Or wait until 3 p.m. and hopefully avoid the rush? She said show up early and wait.

To sum up: Show up at the movie studio at dawn wearing a solid color shirt and glasses. Don't look like a nut job. Oh, and she said "don't complain." Now I'm not sure if that's general advice she gives to everyone doing one of these, or if these are so unpleasant that everyone's reaction is constant complaints, or if she knows that I'm never one to suffer in silence. Whatever, no complaints.

I'll let you know how the casting call goes. And when the gates are added to the Great Wall. And when I get my first picture with a TWD cast member. Stay tuned!