"The World Beneath The World", my latest novel


I'm really excited about this book!

I like the story, the characters, the world, and the possibilities stretching out ahead of me with this just-opened doorway.

I'm already working on the next book in the series, and looking forward to spending a couple of years, at least, sharing the adventures of Rafe and Elmore and Cora (and the tortoises that they live with).

By Amazon's reckoning, it's my 15th book (16, counting a collection I wrote a story for with some friends a few years ago), but WBW makes the 10th book that I can put on my shelf... there's something magic about a printed book.

10 books in 10 years... I'm both proud and intimidated by this achievement.

I've still got lots of books in me: 2-5 in this series, 3 more in the series of children's books I've been working on, and I've got another collection of short fiction in the hands of a few readers, to give me their thoughts on polishing those a bit more before publishing.

Beyond that, I'd like to try and write a horror novel, a cookbook of some of my favorite things to play with in the kitchen, and a book of essays on life with tortoises.

I'm looking forward to the next thing, the next things, but meantime I hope that people enjoy this new book, and will look forward to the ones that follow.

Thanks for reading!




Kindle Vella as Writing Exercise...

 I read something about a new Amazon project about a year ago; I found it intriguing.

Kindle Vella offers readers serial fiction, with new installments becoming available on a regular basis. The first three installments are free to read, with subsequent installments "paid" for with tokens (Amazon gives you 200 to begin with, which should pay for 10-15 installments beyond the introductory ones). Amazon translates the tokens into cash through some formula that passeth understanding, but that's not necessarily the most important part (although money is nice).

I was attracted to the idea because I like serial fiction, and thought the pressure of writing and editing work for a weekly deadline would be enervating... it has been.

I'm working on three Vellas, the first, "The Demon Diaries", is set to drop the ninth installment this weekend. I've just started one that's being released under a pen name, and I'll probably get around to publishing the third one in a month or so, once I get used to juggling the two active ones.

I've been writing the chapters on one day, waiting a few days, and then editing them for publication the following week... the pressure of both sides of this process makes for a great writing exercise, and since they run between 600-2000 words per installment, it's not a massive commitment in time or effort to get the chapters out each week.

I've had pretty good read rates to date, but really I did the Vellas because I like to tell stories and this is a neat way to practice the crafts of writing and editing, with a deadline built-in for good measure.

The surprising thing, which I don't mind in the least, is the bonuses... I'm used to Amazon paying me when people read my stuff, either in physical books, bought or borrowed in Kindle format, or more recently click through the Vella installments... what I wasn't ready for was getting a bonus.

I got a tiny one for April, "meal at McDonald's" sized, which seemed generous because I'd only published the first installment of the Demon Diaries in that month, and hardly anyone had read it. I was more surprised by the May bonus, which was "fancy dinner out for two" sized, because although I'd had some reads, more came along in June, and I started the second Vella series in June as well. My hope is that the June bonus is even bigger than May's, but that's not why I'll keep Vella-ing.

I like the practice. I like the feeling of telling stories in a new way. I like exploring different characters and settings than I normally use, and visit, in my short stories and novels. I also like getting paid to tell stories; I like bonuses too.

I'd suggest that anyone interested in the idea do some reading and then throw your hat in the ring with a Vella of your own... I'll read it!



My Ninth Book in Print!

 This morning, just a few minutes ago actually, I hit the "SUBMIT" button to start my ninth book on its journey through the approval process at KDP headquarters (wherever that is).

I'm excited about this, the second book in the series of children's books I've written and done the art for and published. 

I've used photographs of the tortoises I live to help tell the stories.

This story involves a Redfoot Tortoise named Darwin coming to terms with the fact that they might not be who and what the world expects them to be, working through a challenging identity issue with friends, and finally deciding that who they are is more important than other, strictly biological, factors in making you who you are.

The first book was an introduction to Chili, a Russian Tortoise with a burning secret and a grumpy demeanor. Chili spends his life in a bad mood, and works through the reasons, his feelings, and his feeling about being grumpy all the time with his friend Darwin... finally coming to the conclusion that maybe it's all right to not always be happy if that's not how you feel.

I love living with tortoises and exploring some of the challenges that everybody deals with through these children's books; I look forward to the next book in the series, which will feature Aretha, a very large Asian Mountain Tortoise.

All of my books can be found on my author page on Amazon, my own Buy Stuff Page, or by sending me an email at: jsheffield@gmail.com.

I hope you enjoy the latest book, and would love to hear from you and/or see pics of you (or loved ones) enjoying these books!

Thanks - Jamie


Summer Giving Way to Fall

 I started work on my first children's book on a whim, but it's grown into something, which happens with writing.

I had finished my next novel and was in the process of doing the writerly thing and sending it out to agents and publishers for rejection. My plan was to give them a few months time to categorically refuse to help my latest story get into print, say New Year's Eve, before doing what I've done in the past and going it on my own, with the help of Kindle Desktop Publishing (KDP). At that point, I'll self-publish "The World Beneath the World" and get serious about writing the next one.

Until then, my plan was to noodle around with various side-projects: a collection or two of refurbished and expanded shorts and novellas, a website to help people on a semi-guided MFA-like experience, a serial for the new Kindle Vella program, a couple of articles about tortoises for reptile magazines, writing a grant proposal for an educational program I'd like to design, and connecting with local bookstores and schools and libraries... in addition, I jokingly talked with my wife Gail about writing a Children's book about Chili, the male Russian Tortoise that I live with.

It turned out that the story about Chili was first and foremost in my mind, and was apparently ready to come out. I did the artwork using a cool painting app and a few dozen of my photos of Chili and a few of the other tortoises that I live with, and ended up producing a nice little story, with a nice little message, that turned out to be a nice little book (if I do say so myself).

I've sold a bunch of them online via Amazon's website, and a bunch more signed copies through my home office. The book's gotten great reviews so far, from readers all over the place, and it's those reviews, along with pictures like the ones below, that have me working on the next book, which will deal with the Redfoot Tortoise that I live with, Darwin.

The first book allowed me to do something magical and fun, to blend a number of interests of mine into a cool package that can hopefully entertain and teach, or at least make people stop and think, at the same time.

That first book takes a look at Chili's grumpiness in a light-hearted way, but also makes the point that it's OK not to be happy (or to have to pretend to be happy) all the time, but that even when you're grumpy you can enjoy some of the things and beings in your life.

The second book is taking the same approach, through one of the tortoises that I live to examine a subject that some readers may experience and struggle with... in this case, sexual identity and its role and importance in placing you in society and the world.

My hope is to keep having a good time with the books, keep exploring serious issues in a fun way, and to keep producing children's books with lovely artwork of the gorgeous animals that I live with in my creep.

Besides that, I'm planning on moving forward with those other projects mentioned above, as well as pushing ahead with the second book in the new detective series.

Thanks for reading - Jamie


Chili, the Grumpy Tortoise

 My first children's book, "Chili, the Grumpy Tortoise", has gone live and is available on Amazon (or you can order it directly from me if you want a signed copy).

You can find it at Amazon, at the following link: https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B09B4F2KTG

It's the story of a very grumpy Russian tortoise with a past that he explores with the help of a friendly Redfoot Tortoise he lives next to in their outside enclosures.

On the one hand, it's a piece of speculative fiction that considers the possibility that Chili is one of the tortoises that flew around the moon and returned to the Earth in 1968; then filtered through a number of different hands and households in the global pet-trade... on the other hand, it's a meditation on compartmentalizing past outrages and suffering to avoid letting them rule your present... on a third hand (maybe a foot or claw) it's a lovely little story with gorgeous artwork, almost entirely my photographs, run through software to look like paintings, that anyone could enjoy reading with the little people in their lives.

I hope you enjoy the book! 

If you do like it, it would be great if you could leave a 5-star review and then tell five friends who might also like it.

If you'd like multiple copies, signed copies, or multiple signed copies, please reach out to me, and we can make that happen.

Thanks - Jamie


Books in Progress, update and reveal

 I noticed that it's been too long since I posted here, so here goes....

I reached out to 30+ agents and publishers with query letters, interested in trying out a more traditional publishing route for my latest mystery novel, The World Beneath The World, the first book in a series about a pair of detectives hiding out in New Hampshire with a greenhouse full of rescue tortoises. I've heard back with numerous polite "no thank you" emails, a non-committal (yet) expression of some degree of interest, and lots of silence.

I've been noodling with writing a children's book about my tortoises for a while, trying to find the right story and words and pictures to do such a book, and the tortoises, justice. I finished a draft of the book, Chili, the Grumpy Tortoise, today, and ordered a copy so that I can see how the artwork translates... I used my own photos almost entirely, running them through a "photo to painting" app to dial down the photo-realistic feel of the pictures.

I'm also working on a collection of short stories and novellas, Criminal Elements, that will gather some new stories as well as some renovated ones from the cellar, all of them looking at good and bad guys on both sides of the blue line. The impetus for this collection grew from a number of stories I'd written, or wanted to write, that hadn't made it into earlier collections or got shelved before they got written because of other priorities.

I'm excited about working on all three of these projects and hope to have more news about each in the coming weeks.

Thanks - Jamie



It occurred to me this morning that I hadn't posted to this blog in a while. and the best way to do it is to do it, so here goes....

I've always felt a bit as though I operated my writing life, and business, inside a bubble, but it's seemed even more so during the year of Covid. 

I've got a number of projects going, mostly because I like to bounce back and forth between different things, depending on my mood and energy and motivation. 

WIP - Mystery Novel
Beta-readers have helped me through a few drafts of my next book, the first in a new series of detective novels, The World Beneath The World. Once I finish going through it again, to work on the latest round of revisions, it'll be ready to go to the editor (I think). I'm still up in the air as to whether or not I want to send it to a list of potential agents I've been building this time around. I like the freedom, and speed, associated with self-publishing through KDP, but a friend of mine recently got picked up by an agent and I'm both jealous and wondering if that does actually make him more of a "real" writer than me.

I've just finished one article for a magazine that I've been back and forthing with for a while, and have a few other articles I've been considering writing. I have a wide array of interests that I tend to dive deeply, some would say obsessively, into, and I've found that I enjoy sharing what I've learned with other people.

I've continued working with a number of students throughout the pandemic, helping them with writing and organization and motivation in the face of a difficult time to learn and to be a student; I find that I love keeping one foot in the classroom, and hope that I can keep it up even when all of this is behind us.

I recently stumbled across a ghostwriting opportunity, and am working with a person who has lots of material but lacks the time/interest in writing the book they want to publish.

I've got a few dozen stories, both new and old, that keep bouncing around in my head and computer... I'm thinking about assembling them into a collection (or two) of short stories for release through KDP.

One of the things that's helped to keep me writing during Covid has been a series of mini writing retreats. I've done some solo-retreats in my mobile writing cabin, a small trailer that I drag around to pretty spots to write while basking in nature's green glow. A few times, I bubbled in with a friend from my MFA program and we spent a few nights writing and reading and sharing new stuff with each other at an AirBnB somewhere. A third way that I've been taking advantage of is by being a trusted housesitter, which basically means that I stay in someone's house and take care of their animals while they're away. All three of these flavors of writing retreat give me the chance to recharge my creative batteries and get some solid writing done.

I've been feeling the call from a fantasy novel that I began a number of years ago. I have about 80k words in a first draft, and although I wasn't feeling the project come together in the way I'd like back then, it may be time to dust it off and take another look at the project.

Even though it often feels as though I'm flying out of control in multiple directions at once sometimes, I'm excited about the various things I'm working on, and scared, and sometimes feel like an imposter, but I think that's what being a writer is like, a lot of the time, at least for me.

If you have questions, or thoughts, or demands, about anything you read in the blog, or something I wrote on FB or mentioned on the phone, please don't hesitate to get in touch via comment or pm or email.

Thanks for stopping in! - JS


Choice and Choices Across the Worlds We Inhabit and Create

Lately, I’ve been thinking about choice, and choices, in the worlds I inhabit, and in those I create. The living and fictional beings that I live with are defined by their choices, or by the way they act and react to their perception of having choices.

To have agency, to be able to make choices and act on one’s own behalf, is not just freedom, it’s power. The power to pick your path through time, to dodge some obstacles, and intentionally run head-on into others, defines us as individuals; it’s what makes us real, even when we make the wrong choices, or are wrong about having choices at all.

The efforts to control or alter the ecosystem within which a being exists does more than keep them warm or fed or sheltered, these efforts communicate to the world the things that being wants, the things they fear, and their priorities among the wants and fears they have.

I began exploring this idea by thinking about the animals who live with me in my corner of the world. Dogs and tortoises and fish and shrimp; all of them living in artificial ecosystems that I control to a greater or lesser extent. As a body, their agency, their range of choices upon which they can act on their behalf, is limited, by design, by me. The interesting thing within the scope of this consideration is to explore and examine the choices that they can and do make, and to draw conclusions, and meaning, from those actions about who these animals are: what they want, what they fear, and what are their priorities.

The dogs, Puck and Olive, are, at least nominally, holding up their end of a bargain that my ancestors made with their ancestors 50,000 years ago: a straight-up exchange of food (and some other minor considerations) for protection. Over those millennia, both sides have become conditioned to feel love for the other as a two-way reinforcement to the deal, the promise, we all made. I can feel the shape and solidity of our deal in the way that Puck climbs up into bed with me each night, spooning, but with his head facing away from mine, towards the door, in the direction an attack might come from. Olive’s approach to the compact is more complicated, especially with me, as in her previous life she seems to have been actively abused by men, and passively neglected in general; she accepts our offerings of food and seems to mostly trust me, but is not as invested in the protection aspects of the deal as is Puck. The differences in how similar dogs act and react under similar conditions give me a view into their inner lives.

The tortoises I live with, in particular, an old Russian Tortoise, a rescue I call Chili (whose previous human had sadly named him Smirnoff), inspire thoughts about choice in a different light than is cast by the relationship I have, and have had, with dogs. Chili lived a small life in a small Tupperware container prior to coming to live with us in New Hampshire; despite moving into a bigger enclosure with better environmental conditions and food than he was used to in his previous life, he was grumpy and on a hunger strike for the first month and a half we lived together. Tortoises don’t like change, so he chose not to eat for six weeks, which didn’t hurt me, although it worried me plenty. After offering, and then throwing away perfectly good food for forty days and forty nights, one day, same food, he began to eat. Another aspect of his early days with me was hiding, burying himself; apparently, that’s a common tortoise thing when they’re young or scared or in new surroundings. After a few months, he grew sufficiently comfortable with my comings and goings and offerings and not eating him that he took to napping all over the place, wherever and whenever the mood took him. This suggests a trust that I won’t attack him in his sleep, but he still doesn’t like me. My other tortoises are curious about me, watching me while I write this essay, or following my movements around the office when caring for them or bringing food, and will come over for scratches on their heads or shells; Chili not only will not allow scratches, but if my hand stays in his enclosure and in one place for long enough, he’ll move in and bite me (I’ve tested it, with him and the others, he’s the sole biter among my five torts). The fact that he both trusts and dislikes me makes our troubled relationship interesting, and I will admit to spending extra time and effort trying to win him over (to date with a marked lack of success).

I’ve had a small aquaponic aquarium setup in the bathroom for years. I like the waterfall-esque noise it brings to the whole downstairs, love the applied science of filtering water through plants, and grow treats for one of my tortoises who enjoys nibbling pothos leaves (not Chili, although I’ve offered them to him). The fish, a betta, recognizes and can differentiate me from my wife or son, as evidenced by the fact that when I go into the bathroom he comes over to remind me to feed him (and he generally hides when my wife or son comes in). We don’t have much of a relationship beyond his desire for food from me, but that seems to be enough for both of us. It has occurred to me that if he learned to approach my wife and son with his friendly-seeming antics at the front of his little tank that he might get fed three times as often, but either he hasn’t figured that out yet, or he doesn’t want the extra food (alternately, maybe he tried it a few times, and they ignored him, so he saves his best swimming performances for me).

I’ve been working on a novel for a while, tinkering with the story and setting and characters, trying to get everything to feel right. A big part of it for me, with this novel, was in getting to know the various characters, in taking the time to write ‘field-trips’ for them (writing exercises in which they’d explore their world a bit under my watchful, but hopefully detached, observation) to see how they’d act and react in the fictional setting I’d built for them; to get a feel for them and for the choices they’d make. After running them through myriad different scenarios, I felt as though I was getting to know them, and was able to get back to the story I’d been trying to tell previously. It was interesting to me how their choices were such a large part of who they are.

Sometimes my subjects of study, organic and written, can help me understand them even when their choices are phony, or when any choice leads to the same outcome. Puck comes into my office to sleep at my feet when I’m writing, I think he sees it as his job to help. Olive sometimes pees inside, even when the door to their fenced run is open, I think it’s because she doesn’t want to get her feet cold or wet. They both get fed twice a day regardless of their being spectacularly or poorly behaved on any given day; this may make those choices particularly their own, particularly demonstrative of who they are. Choices made when those choices are without consequence present an interesting look into the makeup of any real or imagined being.

I find myself observing people in the supermarket, in books I read, on TV shows I’m watching, and giving them “choice-test”, seeing if I can figure out what choices they’re making, why they’re making them, and what it says about them and their priorities; it also makes me wonder about one of the nuggets of wisdom that a character in a favorite movie once dropped.


Automatic Writing?


Automatic writing or psychography is a claimed psychic ability allowing a person to produce written words without consciously writing. The words purportedly arise from a spiritual or supernatural source.

I don't engage in automatic writing, although it sometimes feels like it.

I often don't know where the words come from... that seems like a startling admission for a writer to make, but it's true. Although I'm a plotter rather than a pantser when it comes to my writing, I sometimes end up surprised by what comes out of my brain through my fingers.

A week ago, I wrote a section of the novel I'm working on, a mystery, in which one of the protagonists related a story about his maternal grandfather and an odd encounter with a polar bear in Iceland to a pair of tertiary antagonists. I enjoyed the story as it came out and found its home in my story (a meta-story?) but had no idea how and why it would fit.

Often, when I'm writing a first draft, I don't worry about the how and why, or even if, it fits. I've got a general framework of the story in notes and on my working storyboard, so I feel free to let my mind wander a bit within that framework and am usually pleased with the results; when I'm not, when it doesn't work out, I can always chop the offending, or oddly fitting, piece.

In this case, though, I really had no idea about the transition from the story my character had related back to the flow of the larger story in which that character was operating/existing; so I put that part of the novel away, and worked on other things for a few days, hoping that it would come to me eventually.

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't... there have been times when I had to prune a whole section from my work because the transition to the next part never came. 

Luckily, the connection came to me yesterday, although I didn't know it when I sat down to begin writing. My wife and I are on the Maine Coast for a few days, and she stayed down at the beach after our morning walk along the low-tide line while I poured a third cup of coffee, started Spotifying with some classical guitar noodling, and opened up the gDoc.

The words started pouring out, rushing through my fingers, Elmore (the protagonist) explaining the connection between his story and the story he was in to both me and to the Scozzofava cousins (the antagonists) at the same time. It felt like a nearly perfect fit (like everything in the first draft, it'll take some polish in subsequent drafts, but it felt right).

I wrote for four hours, minus breaks for coffee input and outflow, and then the words slowly trickled to a stop. The encounter, which is critical for a lot of the closing of the novel, had come together better than I had hoped, and after setting up the next chapter, my brain signaled my fingers that we were done for the day.

When the writing comes as a surprise to me as it flows out onto the computer screen, it can be a temptation to attribute it to the supernatural, but I think there's an easier, and more rational, answer.

I believe that parts of my brain I'm not fully aware of, not fully in control of, have been mulling over the story while I read and write other things for a couple of days; that the part I refer to as 'my backbrain', which I think of as a tiny attic-space in y skull in which a little old man wearing one of those old-timey banker's visors sifts through boxes of papers and photos and write notes to me in calligraphy using a quill and emerald-green ink, is always working on the story.

I love being surprised by what the guy in the back of my skull has to say, and love the interplay between my conscious and subconscious (or unconscious), and what they think about the tale the three of them are spinning in our first drafts.

It's not supernatural, but I'm not convinced it's not a kind of magic.


Gorilla vs. Guerilla Marketing, Amazon, Chapbooks, and Democratizing Writing

I posted on my blog about a month ago that I had in mind to produce a chapbook.

I fell in love with the idea of chapbooks when I learned about them at a residency during my MFA at Goddard College. Traditionally, a chapbook was a small/short book with a collection of essays or poems or stories, plainly bound and distributed cheaply or for free. My plan had been to find a few related stories I'd written and physically produce a chapbook to distribute by hand in my part of the world (I live right down by the NH, VT, MA border).

Covid got in the way of my plans, in that nowadays people don't pick up things that other people have left about; many people don't go out to bookstores and coffeeshops and parks, which were the spots I had planned to leave my chapbook.

Since I was still fond of the concept, I decided to go ahead, and the stories I'd written that most easily lent themselves to collecting were about, or dealt with, dogs. I worked with my wife to polish and edit the stories, discarding a few, adding a few that had felt as though they were 'missing' from the assemblage.

Having dropped the appealing idea of guerilla marketing through the action of distributing my writing throughout the local area in the hopes that people would like what they read and seek out more, I switched my approach to make use of gorilla marketing... more properly, 800-pound gorilla marketing.

Amazon, or more precisely, Amazon's KDP, is one of the largest publishers and distributors of print books and ebooks on the planet. If I couldn't go small, why not go huge, if I couldn't reach out locally, why not extend my reach across the whole planet?

That's what I did.

Using KDP's free website and production aids, I made my chapbook and it is now available all over the world. You can find my chapbook on my Amazon Author Page.

I write using a Chromebook for all sorts of reasons, so my output is in GoogleDocs, which works just fine for this process (although if you use MS Word, that's fine too, possibly a bit better/easier for reasons I'll explain below).

Recipe for a KDP Chapbook:
  • Establish the basics of your chapbook on your KDP bookshelf by hitting the "Create a New Title" button and filling in the information they ask for in the blanks.
  • Once you have the stories for the chapbook selected and edited, assemble them into one unified document.
  • If you want, you can include front matter and back matter and a table of contents if you'd like, but you don't have to... I included a lighter version of all of these things in my chapbook, because I wanted to, there aren't any rules, so do what you want.
  • Chapbooks are traditionally 40 pages or less, but mine was 83 pages, cover to cover... again, don't worry about it.
  • I used some pictures of my own for the front and back covers, and used the KDP Cover Creator, which is free, and like all of KDP has exhaustive tutorial documents and videos.
  • Once I had all of the above done, I went back in and adjusted the size of my book from 6X9 to 5.5X8.5... I did this for two reasons: first, I like the idea of a smaller book; second, this is a paper size that Gdocs has, so I didn't have to mess around and complicate my life trying to adjust or translate paper sizes.
  • I saved/downloaded the unified document into PDF format because, for some reason, KDP likes PDF.
  • Upload the PDF document to KDP using the buttons provided in the book "blank" you created in the first step of this recipe.
  • Check over how KDP translated and presented your book, cover and all... I don't know why, but there are almost always issues with an extra page or odd header issues, but you can fix that in the document, resave it as a new PDF, and re-upload.
  • Once you've got everything looking the way you want you can shift gears and begin thinking about pricing and distribution and making it an ebook as well as a print book... I priced mine at 99¢ for an ebook and $5 for a printed book; I did that because I like the idea of a cheap book, and getting my stories into the hands of anyone who want to read them (I also have to admit that I like poking a tiny stick into the eye of the publishing world that makes even tiny paperback $15-$20 nowadays, and routinely charges twice that for hardcovers).
  • Once you've done all of that, you're ready to hit the "Publish" button, then waiting while Amazon does whatever they do for 12-24 hours before your book goes live.
I'm planning to keep producing chapbooks, both collections and novellas, as time goes on... I hope you enjoy them, and that the word spread about this cool idea of smaller chunks of reading and writing.

If you have questions about the process, my process, my book or books, or about anything having to do with my writing, please get in touch. - JS