Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Mind & Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Part 2

by Kassandra Lamb

PTSD brain

public domain, Wikimedia Commons

There are still some aspects of PTSD that we psychologists can’t fully explain, but there’s a lot that we do now understand. And our more recent discoveries about the brain, that offer those explanations, give me confidence that someday we will have all the explanations.

Here’s a short list of the most common symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:

  1.  Experienced an event that involved a significant threat to the physical integrity of self or others.
  2.  Recurrent and intrusive thoughts or images of the event and/or flashbacks (acting or feeling as if the event was reoccurring).
  3.  Recurrent nightmares, insomnia.
  4.  Intense distress and physiological arousal when exposed to internal or external cues (triggers) that symbolize or resemble some aspect of the event; avoidance of those triggers.
  5.  Anxiety attacks and/or outbursts of anger.
  6.  Hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response.
  7.  Depression and/or irritability (an early symptom of mild to moderate depression).
  8.  Difficulty concentrating, memory problems.
  9.  Numbing of feelings and/or general responsiveness.
  10.  Inability to recall important aspects of the event (dissociative amnesia).
  11.  Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.

PTSD is the only psychological disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the bible of mental health professionals) where the cause of the disorder is listed as one of its criteria for diagnosis. The person has to experience a traumatic event, and it’s not hard to figure out how something that overwhelming would cause intrusive thoughts, flashbacks and nightmares.

But why #4 and #5? Why such an intense physical and emotional reaction to some minor reminder, that can even lead to a full-blown anxiety attack? Let me repeat the definition of trauma from a previous post: an event so emotionally overwhelming that it cannot be processed emotionally or cognitively at the time that it happens.

The emotions of that event have not yet been processed. They’re stored in the brain in their raw and still quite intense form.

revolving brain

The two hemispheres of the brain color-coded as red; the cerebellum as beige (animated image by -Database Center for Life Science CC-BY-SA-2.1-Japan via Wikimedia Commons)

Also, think back to last week’s post about where things are stored in the brain and what parts of the brain are and are not easily accessed consciously. Negative emotions, mental images, and learned associations are all stored in relatively inaccessible places–in either the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex or the cerebellum.

So it’s difficult sometimes to intentionally bring these memories and emotions back into conscious awareness so that they can be processed and put to rest. But because of learned associations with those “internal and external cues,” it’s all too easy for the intense emotions from the traumatic event to get triggered in day-to-day life.

How does this work? Let me give you an example.

One of my clients experienced a trauma during her childhood while she was standing across the room from a large fan. (For the sake of confidentiality, I won’t go into details.) Later in adulthood, she became phobic of fans. Whenever she saw a moving fan blade, she would have a full-blown, run-screaming-from-the-room anxiety attack. But she had no idea consciously why she had these attacks over something as dumb as a fan (The fan itself had nothing to do with the traumatic event; it was just present in the room.)

The memory of trauma was stored–as images and raw emotions–in her right hemisphere. The learned association (classical conditioning a la Pavlov’s slobbering dogs) between the sight of that fan and those intense emotions was stored in her cerebellum.

The neural impulses that were triggered whenever she saw a fan would look like a big V on the right side of her brain–the image of the fan in the here and now is processed in the right hemisphere, the neural impulse zips down and back to her cerebellum to the learned association, then is flung back up to the right hemisphere to stir up that old memory and its associated feelings.

Voila, anxiety attack. And with little or no awareness in the conscious mind of what was going on (because it tends to be focused mostly on left hemisphere activity, i.e. verbal thoughts).

angry woman

(photo by Lisa Brewster CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

Intense anger can also occur with PTSD. This anger is a leftover feeling from the traumatic event. Whenever we feel threatened, anger is part of our response, even if it is trumped by fear at the time. Later, when we are once again in a safe environment, that anger can surface. And it can come out in ways that make it appear (even to the person feeling it) to be about here-and-now events, when it’s really about the past. This can be very destructive to relationships.

I think #6 and #7 are fairly self-explanatory. If something really scary has taken you by surprise in the past, you’re likely to be more on guard all the time, and startle more easily. And struggling with all this would certainly be depressing.

 

photo by cellar door films, from WANA Commons

photo by cellar door films, from WANA Commons

Up to this point, we have been talking about the intrusive symptoms of PTSD–the ways that this disorder intrudes into and disrupts the person’s life. Numbers 8 through 11 refer to the dissociative symptoms.

The human psyche, like the rest of our internal systems, is designed to help us survive. If something is too emotionally overwhelming, the psyche strives to block it out of awareness.

It may do this by suppressing the feelings, but often it’s not able to just suppress the specific feelings related to the trauma. So all feelings become numbed out to some degree. In the extreme, all or part of the memory of the event may be blocked out. But again this blocking of memory may be more generalized, making it hard to concentrate and remember things in general.

I’ve had several clients who had memory and/or concentration problems that interfered with their schoolwork or jobs. But once certain traumatic events (that their minds were working overtime to suppress) had been processed, they rather suddenly went from C to A students or could now easily remember things (like people’s names) that they’d had great difficulty with in the past.

image by Khaydock, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

image by Khaydock, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

(Note: How the mind blocks out feelings and/or memories is one of those things we don’t yet have an explanation for, but lots of scientific research confirms that this does happen.)

Sometimes that numbing of feelings makes it hard for the person to connect with others. Also, the experiences they’ve had may leave them feeling irrevocably different from most people. Group therapy and support groups are particularly helpful for this symptom, as well as the others.

Besides group support, the most effective therapies for PTSD are the ones that help the person finally process the memories and feelings related to the trauma. Depending on the trauma (and the therapeutic approach used), this can take some time, and it can be painful to relive those feelings. But releasing the emotional charge on those events and putting their meaning into perspective allows the person to move from trauma survivor to getting on with living and thriving.

And here’s an interesting tidbit from the scientific research. In last week’s post, I talked about how memories are stored where they are first processed. Research has found that traumatic memories are stored in the cerebral cortex right next to the emotional parts of the brain (called the limbic system). But after therapy, when those memories have been re-processed, they are now stored further out in the cerebral cortex, away from the emotional limbic system. Concrete proof that the feelings have truly been discharged and the experience of that memory has been changed!

Any thoughts on all this? Do you know someone who suffers from PTSD, or have you struggled with this disorder?

PTSD is on my mind these days because of my new series, About a young woman who trains service dogs for PTSD sufferers. Please take a moment to check out Book 1 in the series, To Kill A Labrador.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

6 Fascinating Things to Understand About the Mind (and PTSD)

by Kassandra Lamb

I started out today with the goal of writing about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Then I realized I needed to start elsewhere, with a bit of an explanation of how the human mind really works. So this is Part 1 of a two (maybe three) part series on the mind and PTSD.

Freud

Sigmund Freud (public domain)

Sigmund Freud introduced the concepts of the conscious mind and the unconscious mind in the early 1900s. His theory was quite controversial in its day and for quite a few decades afterwards. But a century after its introduction, most of us accept that there is stuff going on in our brains that we’re not currently aware of consciously.

But what exactly are these things called a conscious or unconscious mind (or the term often used by lay people–the subconscious mind)?

They aren’t really things at all. These aren’t actual places in the physical brain. There is no barrier somewhere in there that separates what is conscious from what is unconscious. Indeed, information flows back and forth between the two states of awareness all the time.

Here are six pieces of information one needs to know to understand the workings of our conscious/unconscious minds. I find them fascinating and hope that you do too.

NUMBER 1: Limited Time and Space
What we think of as our conscious minds, memory experts would call our working memories. Whatever one is thinking about at any given moment is in his/her working memory.

brain scan of working memory at work

The active parts of the brain during working memory tasks. (public domain)

Unfortunately, working memory is a pretty small space. There’s only room for about five to nine “chunks” of information at any given time. And unless one is actively focused on/thinking about a particular piece of info, it will drop out of working memory in about ten seconds or so.

Makes you wonder how we humans ever accomplish anything intellectual, doesn’t it?

NUMBER 2: Attention
If we pay attention to something, we can hold it in working memory (aka our conscious awareness) much longer. And if we are not focused on something (some verbal thought, piece of information, feeling, mental image, etc.), it will fade into the background (i.e., slide back into the unconscious mind), crowded out of working memory by whatever we are paying attention to at that moment.

Most information stored in our brains is available to our conscious minds IF the right memory cue comes along to bring it to the surface. But some things can get buried pretty deep in the unconscious, either due to lack of attention for a long time or to active pushing aside by our defenses (more on this next week).

Have you ever had the experience of something triggering a very old memory and you think, Gee, I haven’t thought about that in years?

NUMBER 3: Connections
The third thing to understand is that our minds automatically make a lot of connections between various things. This is called conditioned learning.

Ivan Pavlov

Personally, I think Ivan’s a lot cuter than Sigmund. (public domain)

Anyone who’s ever taken a psychology class has heard about Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who first had the Eureka moment regarding conditioning. He was studying the rate of salivation in dogs when presented with food, but after a while, he noticed that the dogs in his lab were salivating before the food was presented. They’d start slobbering in response to the sight of the equipment used to measure their drool, or to the lab attendant’s footsteps coming to get them out of their cages.

The dogs’ brains had learned to associate these other sights and sounds with the fact that they were about to be fed. And a biological phenomenon over which the dogs had no conscious control, salivating, occurred whenever they experienced these cues.

It’s imperative to our survival and sanity that our brains make all these little connections. They make life so much easier.

A moment ago, I scratched my hand without thinking about it. I hadn’t even noticed consciously that the hand had an itch until I was scratching it. And even then I might not have noticed if I hadn’t been casting about for an example of unconscious connections.

Without these learned associations, I wouldn’t have automatically scratched that little itch. The itch would have had to build until it was so annoying that I became consciously aware of it. Then I would have to stop and think and ask myself what has helped make something stop itching in the past. Oh yes, scratching the itchy spot usually helps.

Humans would have long since died off if they had to give that much conscious thought to every little need. There would be no time nor space in their working memories to solve problems or invent things.

NUMBER 4: The Form Our Thoughts Take
Neural impulses are firing in various parts of our brains all the time, but once we develop a fair amount of active language (usually by age 4 or 5), we tend to be most aware of our verbal thoughts. In other words, we consciously think in language most of the time.

Visual images also play a role. We may consciously call up an internal vision of something that happened in the past, or of a place we’re planning to go.

This morning, I accidentally drove past the post office, where I had planned to mail some letters. No problem, I thought as I visualized the big blue mailbox in front of my grocery store. I can mail them at the store. (My next errand.)

wedding day

I can recall being hot but I can’t feel it again consciously.

Memories of other things we’ve sensed may come into our conscious awareness as well, but most likely those thoughts will be verbal. When I think about my wedding day, during one of the hottest Augusts in Maryland’s history, I remember that it was hot. But I don’t actually feel that heat again. Likewise, I can recall that I felt both scared and excited that day. But I’m thinking about those feelings, not actually re-experiencing them.

The visceral sensations associated with memories and previous feelings are not all that accessible via our conscious minds.

Which brings us to…

NUMBER 5: Where Things Are Stored
First, let me point out that information tends to be stored in the part of the brain where it was first processed (or later, where it was re-processed; more on this next time). There’s a long biological explanation for that, which I think we’ll skip. Please just take my word for this little tidbit.

There’s a lot of stuff constantly being processed and stored in various parts of our brains, but to keep this simple I’m going to focus on the functions of three parts of the brain.

For most people (all right-handed ones and some left-handed ones), language functions occur in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. (The cerebral cortex is the outer layer and the highest level of the brain, where actual rational thinking occurs, among other things.)

The cerebral cortex hard at work.

The cerebral cortex hard at work.

Visual perception (i.e., the processing of what we see) and sound modulation processing (i.e., tone of voice, etc.) occur mostly in the right hemisphere.

So if someone says, “Now don’t you look lovely tonight, my dear,” in a mildly sarcastic voice with a slight sneer on their face, your left hemisphere processes the words themselves. But your right hemisphere sends out a “snark alert” after interpreting the body language and tone.

But here’s the thing–sometimes those interpretations of visual and auditory info don’t make it into the conscious mind, because that information is being processed in the right hemisphere and we are more prone to be aware of our verbal left hemisphere’s thoughts. If at that moment when the subtly snarky comment is being processed, we’re thinking, “Gee, I’m glad I wore this outfit tonight,” that thought may crowd the interpretation of the body language and tone of voice out of conscious awareness.

But they’ve still registered in the right hemisphere. That part of our brain knows we’ve just been dissed, even if our conscious mind is oblivious. (And the memory of that event is mostly stored in the right hemisphere–the images, tone of voice, etc.)

Okay, let’s look at where emotions tend to be processed and stored. Research indicates that our positive emotions–joy, pride, anticipation–tend to be processed mostly in the left hemisphere, while the negative ones–fear, anger, disappointment, sadness–are mostly in the right hemisphere.

Do you see where this is going? You walk away from that person assuming you’ve been complimented when in reality you’re feeling hurt and belittled, and you don’t even know you’re having those feelings, because none of that ever made it into conscious awareness. So you end up being in a bad mood or maybe you pick a fight with your mate, accusing him or her of never appreciating how you look.

And you’re totally oblivious to the fact that your mood and behavior have been affected by the jerk with a smirk on his face.

revolving brain

The two hemispheres of the brain color-coded as red; the cerebellum as beige (animated image by Database Center for Life Science CC-BY-SA-2.1-Japan, Wikimedia Commons)

This brings us to one more part of the brain that is important to understanding the conscious vs. unconscious mind. The cerebellum is a section of the brain at the lower back part of your head. It is not part of the cerebral cortex, so it is completely outside of conscious awareness and pretty much beyond the reach of logical thought processes.

Research indicates that all those learned associations I mentioned earlier are stored in the cerebellum. So they operate outside of conscious awareness.

Which brings us to the part of this that relates to PTSD.

NUMBER 6: Memories, Old Associations and Feelings Can Be Triggered Without Our Conscious Awareness
Let’s go back to the jerk with a smirk for a moment. I didn’t make that example up. That really happened to me. The host of a professional gathering met me at the door with that greeting.

My conscious mind (left hemisphere) was preening at the compliment but unconsciously, my right hemisphere picked up on the implied slam that I usually looked like crap.

As the evening progressed, I found myself feeling more and more insecure and self-conscious–not a normal reaction for me. I’m pretty secure in my ability to get along with people and be well-liked. But that evening, I found myself stumbling in conversations and even becoming physically clumsy.

mirror

For some reason, looking in the mirror often helps me connect with my unconscious mind (photo by Surii, CC-BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

I finally took myself off to the ladies’ room to have a little chat with myself. Looking in the mirror, I thought, “What’s wrong with me? I haven’t felt this awkward since middle school.”

Sometimes when you ask your unconscious mind a direct question, it gives a direct answer, if you’re paying attention. I immediately flashed to a mental image of that scene at the door. Only this time I heard the tone and saw the sneer on a conscious level.

A little background info here. I was what my mother politely called a “late bloomer,” and my classmates in middle school, being the delightfully civilized creatures that they were, teased me unmercifully about my nonexistent figure and overall gawky appearance.

The host’s tone and sneer had triggered an association (via my cerebellum) to those middle school memories and the self-conscious feelings from that time in my life (stored in the right hemisphere). All this happened outside of my conscious awareness and created a totally out of character reaction, both in my emotions and behavior.

Knowing the man as I did, I suspected he’d done it on purpose. This guy, a colleague I could barely tolerate, liked to mess with people’s heads.

I slapped on a big smile and went back into the room where the event was being held. Sailing past him, head held high, I paused briefly to thank him for hosting such a successful gathering, with a hint of sarcasm in my tone. He gave me a strange look. I hope that I successfully hid my own smirk.

Next time – how all this explains PTSD symptoms.

How about you? Has anything like that ever happened to you, where you acted out of character without understanding why? Do you find the human mind as fascinating as I do?

Please take a moment to check out my new release, Book 1 in a new series about a young woman who trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD.

ToKillALabrador FINALTo Kill A Labrador, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery

Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) likes to think of herself as a normal person, even though she has a rather abnormal vocation. She trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD. Then the ex-Marine owner of her first trainee is accused of murdering his wife, and Marcia gets sucked into an even more abnormal avocation–amateur sleuth.

Called in to dog-sit the Labrador service dog, Buddy, she’s outraged that his veteran owner is being presumed guilty until proven innocent. With Buddy’s help, she tries to uncover the real killer.

Even after the hunky local sheriff politely tells her to butt out, Marcia keeps poking around. Until the killer finally pokes back.

AMAZON US   AMAZON UK   AMAZON CA   AMAZON AUS   APPLE   KOBO

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

Let’s All Be “Friends”

by Kassandra Lamb

4 multi-colored hands grasping each other

Social media has changed the definition of friendship dramatically. I used to think this was a bad thing. Indeed, I believed it to be a horrible thing. As a psychologist, I was sure that people interacting mostly online rather than face-to-face would cause all kinds of stunted growth and twisted relationships.

And I’m sure that in some cases it does contributed to such stunting and twisting, but probably only in people who already had a predisposition to be stunted or twisted to begin with. And certainly the anonymity that is possible on social media has brought out the worst in a lot of people who think that bullying and trolling are great sport.

But I’ve made an amazing discovery.

As a writer, I had to get on social media, whether I liked the idea or not. And I didn’t like the idea, mostly because I’m rather technologically challenged. Besides, I’m an outgoing person, so I already had a large circle of friends, acquaintances and family members to keep up with.

But everyone kept telling me I needed a social media platform, whatever that was. So I got on Twitter and Pinterest and Facebook (technically I’m on Google+ but I don’t do much over there). Twitter and Pinterest are okay. I pop in there every few days.

mad scientist

Eureka!! I’ve made an amazing discovery! (by J.J., modified by Wapcaplet and Doctor Dan, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia)

The big discovery, though, has been that I love Facebook. Maybe it’s because, early on, an in-real-life friend got me into a closed writers’ group on FB, and they are so awesome! Their name says it all, the WANAs, which stands for We Are Not Alone. Their encouragement, support and unconditional acceptance has made a huge difference in my professional and personal life.

But I also found that I really liked Facebook as a way to stay in touch with in-real-life (IRL) friends and family, and as a way to make connections with new people.

I’m not one to send friend requests to strangers, nor do I go searching for followers or likes on my author page. On the other hand, I rarely say no to a friend request I receive, since the person may be asking because they’re a fan of my books. (And one never wants to turn away a fan!)

I currently have 326 friends and 27 followers on Facebook (this is on my personal profile, not my author page). I just went through the list and figured out who was who. Out of those 326 FB friends, 63 are IRL friends, acquaintances and family members.

Nineteen are folks whom I know to be fans of my books, and about fifty-four of them are random people who have sent me “friend” requests. I suspect a lot of those are also fans of my books (and probably most of the 27 followers as well).

And 173 of my FB friends are authors I have met online since starting this writing journey. Fourteen of these folks I have now gotten together with in person as well.

Oh, and ten of those FB “friends” are dirty old men whom I haven’t gotten around to “unfriending” yet. (“Hello pretty lady, you have such a nice smile…”)

Sounds like a lot of virtual (and I mean that both ways) strangers to deal with, doesn’t it? But you know what… about fifteen percent of those authors, fans and random folks have truly become friends of mine through our interactions on FB.

friends holding hands

Online friends may not be able to hold my hand, but they are my virtual cheering section. (photo by Mathias Klang CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia)

I feel like I “know” these folks as well as, if not better than some of my IRL friends and family. I cry when bad things happen in their lives and I cheer when things are going well. And I know I can count on them to have my back! I can describe their personalities, tell you whether they’re coupled or single, and whether they’re a dog or a cat person (if they’re into snakes, I am NOT going out of my way to meet them IRL…lol).

I’ve shared things with them (in closed groups, private messages and emails) that only my closest IRL friends know about. And I’ve gotten the same quality of support back from them as I get from my fabulous IRL friends.

And another cool thing about these FB friends is that they are scattered all over the country and the world. I have friends in Texas and California and Michigan and Hawaii, and also in Newfoundland and Canada and India and England and Scotland and Australia and New Zealand…

I’ve also discovered a couple of people who turned out to live within an easy drive from my home, and they are now IRL friends!

So my attitude has changed dramatically about social media. Oh, I still hate that the trolls and the haters misuse it. But overall I think it’s a great way to make and maintain connections with people.

And I’m inviting all of you, as well as all of my FB friends, to come to a Facebook party today to celebrate something really important to me! Book 1 in my new series is officially being launched today. The series is about a young woman who trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD.

FB party banner

I’m so excited about this series!!

There will be games and prizes and all sorts of fun interactions. It’s happening TODAY between 2 and 8 p.m. EDT, at this link. Please click over and join us!!

Oh, and here is the adorable cover of the book (thanks to one of my wonderful online friends, cover designer Melinda VanLone, whom I have now met in person!)

ToKillALabrador FINALTo Kill A Labrador, A Marcia Banks and Buddy Mystery

Marcia (pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha) likes to think of herself as a normal person, even though she has a rather abnormal vocation. She trains service dogs for combat veterans with PTSD. Then the ex-Marine owner of her first trainee is accused of murdering his wife, and Marcia gets sucked into an even more abnormal avocation–amateur sleuth.

Called in to dog-sit the Labrador service dog, Buddy, she’s outraged that his veteran owner is being presumed guilty until proven innocent. With Buddy’s help, she tries to uncover the real killer.

Even after the hunky local sheriff politely tells her to butt out, Marcia keeps poking around. Until the killer finally pokes back.

AMAZON US   AMAZON UK   AMAZON CA   AMAZON AUS   APPLE   KOBO

It will be at the intro price of just $1.99 through the party! (then it goes up.)

Has social media changed your friendships? Has it been for better or worse, or some of both?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

8 Tongue-in-Cheek Tips for Scoring Good Reviews ~ Guest Post by Barb Taub

I have a special treat for you all today–a guest post from one of the funniest people I know. I stumbled on Barb Taub’s blog a couple of years ago, and I haven’t stopped laughing at her antics since.

Barb Taub head shot

Her books are considered urban fantasy (a genre I never read, unless it’s her books), but her stories have more than enough adventure and mystery to keep me turning pages, and laughing my head off. (And her latest one–see below–has a hot romance, and a cute dog!)

So with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, here is Barb’s advice on how to get good reviews…

My Top 8 Writer Tips for Scoring Positive Book Reviews
(and Making a Bunch of Money! 😀 )

by Barb Taub

Last week I did our monthly budget, an act which blurs the boundaries between blind faith and creative fiction. (Warning: I’m a professional writer so I make up sh*t for a living. Do NOT try this at home, boys and girls.)

At first, I wasn’t too upset because I thought that writers were supposed to live lives of abject poverty—garrets, obscurity, perhaps the odd chemical dependency.

But then I remembered reading an article a few years ago about Simon & Schuster’s offer of $920,000 for rights to a first novel, Just Killing Time by Derek V. Goodwin, that was submitted with endorsements from novelists John LeCarre and Joseph Wambaugh. The only problem: Wambaugh and LeCarre denied ever reading the book, so Simon & Schuster canceled the contract.

The real Howard Hughes

The real Howard Hughes. After seven top journalists interviewed Irving’s cohort who was claiming to be Hughes, they all agreed that he was a fake. 

Then there was the autobiography of the famously reclusive Howard Hughes, written with Clifford Irving. Publisher McGraw-Hill was so excited about their literary coup in signing the book that they offered Irving (and Hughes, they thought) a $765,000 advance. The only problem was that some other pesky guy who said his name was Howard Hughes kept claiming that he’d never even met Irving, much less co-authored his autobiography. Nonsense, proclaimed McGraw-Hill. They investigated and eventually had to sheepishly acknowledge that the fakes were Irving and his team. Irving ended up going to prison for seventeen months, and more importantly, he had to return the $765,000 advance.

Do you know what these stories mean to me as a writer?

Of course you do! It means that McGraw-Hill wasn’t out that $765K. And Simon & Schuster never coughed up the $920K.

So those dollars are probably lying around waiting for me to scoop them up, if I can just round up some good reviews, or—as we professional writers say—“blurbs”. (From the Latin word blurbus, the sound made by the Latin critic when the Latin writer holds him under the Latin water until he agrees to say something good about the Latin opus.)

Of course, I’ve learned a lesson from Irving’s and Goodwin’s little missteps. Here are the top eight things I’ll look for in my blurb-writers.

1. I’ll seek blurbs by writers who are unlikely to change their high opinion after actually reading my opus. John Welles understood this when he wrote: “Here are jeweled insights, lovingly crafted by a veritable Faberge amongst wordsmiths, hand-polished erections in the global village of contemporary sensibility, perceptions snatched from the Outer limits of human experience…” John Welles’ review of “Masterpieces”—a book written by John Welles.

Shakespeare monument

It’s just a nasty rumor that my friend Bill is deceased.

2. I’ll find blurbs from writers who couldn’t possibly deny authoring a blurb. Not being (technically) alive helps here. For example, I will use a blurb from my dear friend and fellow writer, Bill Shakespeare. He just sent one which sayeth: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive Barb’s powerful rhyme. But she shall shine more bright in these contents than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.”

(Hmm, I think Bill’s last line there refers to my housekeeping, so I’ll try to get the publisher to leave it off the book jacket.)

3. Then there are the blurbs which are both literary and literally incomprehensible. Hemingway’s blurb will read: “The afternoon sun shines on the woman who runs with a lot of bull.” And James Joyce will add: “Yes because I give it mindseye form in her novel children are her life running through the mystery world…”

4. And there will be blurbs from people who are so famous they don’t need actual opinions. My blurb from Kim Kardashian will be, “Kim! Kim, Kim, Kim!”

5. I’ll blurb myself a bio so incredible that the publishers fighting to be the first to sign me will look like the crowd at a sorority convention that just spotted the last Diet Coke. I’m thinking something along these lines:

mannequin by store doorway

The author worked odd jobs as an armless, shoeless mannequin to make ends meet.

After spending my childhood as an abused Bosnian orphan, I discovered that I was actually the secret love child of Elvis, Marilyn, and at least two Kennedys (those love quadrangles can be brutal). With only my dreams of a better life to sustain me, I managed to make it to Harvard on a full scholarship, only to recklessly squander that on a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge. With a six-latte/day caffeine monkey on my back, I was forced to prostitute myself as a technical editor just to support my twelve fatherless puppies and my barista. But I never gave up my dream of finding the truth about my parents, all of whose deaths had been faked in order for them to enter the witness protection program where, I eventually discovered, all four are running a waffle house in upstate Maine. Every reader who sheds a tear for my characters, laughs at my jokes, or takes the time to put in a better-than-three-star review on Amazon brings me one step closer to realizing my dream of reuniting with them. Oh, and I’m a flying vampire.

6. If all of the above fail, I can always get 5-Star reviews the old-fashioned way: buy them. (On fiverr.com, a search for “book reviews” came up with 569 hits offering “fantastic” book reviews, some even guaranteeing placement into Amazon’s “Top Sellers” lists.)

tea party

I wonder how many reviews I can buy for my new work, Fifty Shades of Earl Grey. (In their 5-star review, Upper West Middlesex Doglover’s Monthly calls it “Steaming hot!”)

7. If I’m really desperate, I can always go for a spot of trashing the opposition. With estimates of over 600,000 books to be published this year, clearly some writers are taking the “If you can’t beat them, troll them” approach. I noticed one day that two of my books got one-star ratings from a reviewer on Goodreads. Looking under the writer’s name, I saw that she lone-star ‘reviewed’ over fifty other books that day. Not only does she read at something approaching the speed of light, but she’s a glutton for punishment since she didn’t like a single one of those books.

8. Of course, if all else fails, I can do what Eva Hansen did for the erotic Swedish thriller, Red is the Color of Pain.

Described by reviewers as Fifty Shades of Grey meets The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish News (Svensk Nyheter) called it “The most impressive Swedish detective novel since Stieg Larsson!” Oppna TV Stockholm went on to say, “This Stockholm is a city of sin, feeling, and furious passions that Swedish literature has never before known.”

One reason that Stockholm hasn’t known it is that none of them—Eva Hansen, Swedish News, nor Oppna TV Stockholm—actually exist and the book has a Russian copyright.

So it looks like I should stick with writing my own books. Luckily, that’s pretty exciting right now. My new book, Round Trip Fare, is an urban fantasy with romance, suspense, humor, a sentient train, and a great dog.

Round-Trip Fare book cover

ROUND-TRIP FARE (Null City #4)

Now that the century-long secret Nonwars between Gifts and Haven are over and the Accords Treaty is signed, an uneasy peace is policed by Wardens under the command of the Accords Agency. Warden Carey Parker’s to-do list is already long enough: find her brother and sister, rescue her roommate, save Null City, and castrate her ex-boyfriend. Preferably with a dull-edged garden tool. A rusty one. It just would have been nice if someone told her the angels were all on the other side.

Available for Pre-Order Now on Amazon US and Amazon UK

Although the story is a standalone, the award-winning release is part of the Null City series, which reviewers (actual living humans, I swear!) have called “An amazing story of fantasy, time and dimension travel, and strong heroines with superpowers”—Between The Lines Book Reviews

Hmm, I wonder if my letters from Simon & Schuster and/or McGraw-Hill were misdelivered? After all, I’m still waiting for that letter from Hogwarts.

Posted by Barb Taub, author of the Null City series. In halcyon days BC (before children), Barb wrote a humour column for several Midwest newspapers. With the arrival of Child #4, she veered toward the dark side and an HR career. Following a daring daytime escape to England, she’s lived in a medieval castle and a hobbit house with her prince-of-a-guy and the World’s Most Spoiled Aussie Dog. Now all her days are Saturdays, and she spends them travelling around the world, plus consulting with her daughter on Marvel heroes, Null City, and translating from British to American.

Kass Lamb’s Review of Round-Trip Fare

Barb’s wonderful sense of humor shines through in her characters, and most especially in Carey Parker, young Accords Warden and all around hell-raiser. I absolutely love this character. And her friends, including her four-legged companion, are almost as delightful.

The plot is convoluted at times but fascinating throughout, with plenty of adventure and suspense to keep this mystery lover satisfied. And then there’s the sexy mystery man… Yum!

Five enthusiastic stars!

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