Black Friday Sale on Cinder Allia!

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For the first time ever, my fairy tale novel, Cinder Allia, is going on sale! Now through  November 27 only, you can purchase the eBook for just 99 cents on all major eBook outlets (regular $3.99), and the paperback on Amazon for only $11.65 (regular $13.99).

Hurry, because after Nov. 27, the eBook will be temporarily removed from the market to migrate to a new distributor!

cinder allia

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division.
Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love?
Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

“Karen Ullo’s literary talent is captivating and thought-provoking, using symbolism and mystery to explore what keeps human beings in touch with the divine.” – Kaye Park Hinckley, author of A Hunger in the Heart and Birds of a Feather

“Ullo manages to take the mold and brick of legend and build a more than substantial work of art…. The story is completely familiar, yet completely new.” – Jonas Perez, author of Finibus

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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Against Productivity

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nanowrimo

It’s November, and in writing circles, that means it’s NaNoWriMo (the rather awkward acronym for National Novel Writing Month.) As you probably already know, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to write an entire novel in 30 days—or at least, to get 50,000 words on paper, even if that might not be quite The End. Every year, people ask me, “Are you doing NaNoWriMo?”, and every year I answer, “No. I’m a tortoise, not a hare.” Then I try my best to cheer on all the speed-writers, because if writing a lousy novel in 30 days is your path to eventually distilling out a worthwhile manuscript, then go for it! I certainly know people for whom this process has proven fruitful, and I’m a firm believer in doing whatever works.

But there’s a fundamental problem with the idea that a writer’s progress can be measured by a word count, which is, of course, that a word count by itself imposes nothing in the way of quality control. “I wrote 20,000 words this week!” sounds like a great accomplishment, and if it represents a flurry of true inspiration or the end of a period of literary sloth, then it is. But those carefully enumerated words, by mere fact of their existence, do not always represent progress—nor do they always indicate that a writer has really overcome his or her tendency toward laziness. Sloth is an insidious sin that comes in many forms, of which the tendency to sit back and do nothing is only the most obvious. Sloth can also manifest itself as a laziness of artistry, and in this, the ideal of “productivity” plays right into the devil’s crafty hand.

There is no set amount of time that a writer must spend to craft a worthy novel. Newly-minted Nobel laureate Kasuo Ishiguro wrote Remains of the Day in four weeks—pretty much like doing NaNoWriMo. Stephen King has said that his first drafts, even of his longest novels, never take more than three months. On the other hand, Donna Tartt spent a decade writing The Goldfinch. Markus Zusak spent three years on The Book Thief. All of these are living writers working within the modern publishing industry. Clearly, in the race between hares and tortoises, the answer is that both can win.

Speed is not a writer’s enemy. But sloppiness is, and while good writing can happen quickly, sloppiness is more often the result of rushing than of careful slowness. Very few of us are Ishiguro.

The modern world has a tendency to want to quantify every aspect of existence. We trust numbers; we have been brainwashed to believe that numbers never lie. Two plus two is always four. Four is always more than two. Mathematical proof is final. Progress must move toward the right on the number line, not the left. In the case of something as ephemeral as a story—a genuinely un-quantifiable entity—we nevertheless seek comfort in whatever numbers we can attach to it. Word count. Copies issued. Copies sold. Dollars earned. See, we tell ourselves, progress is still numbers. Progress is visible. Progress moves forward.

And yet, for the writer, real progress often moves backwards. It is far better to cut the unnecessary scene, no matter how finely-wrought, than to foist it upon the reader. If problems in chapter one prevent you from writing chapter twelve, then it is far better to fix chapter one than to pound resolutely forward, knowing that you are building on a cracked foundation. Above all people, the fiction writer—whose calling is to probe the mysterious depths of humankind—ought to know that numbers can lie, that loss can be counted as gain, that paradox is our natural human state. And yet, we often allow the culture of consumerism to bully even novelists into believing that “productivity” must be our standard. Set up the assembly line. Push the words through. Next novel, please, or you’re fired.

Of course, novelists who are working under contract deadlines really must conform to these standards. However, I suspect that very few of the almost 400,000 people who participated in NaNoWriMo in 2016 had a contract to satisfy. Imagine if, instead of setting themselves a goal to write 50,000 words in a month, each and every one of those 400,000 people set the goal to write one masterpiece in a lifetime—one work of art that each individual would be proud to leave behind as a legacy to the world. Then imagine a whole community dedicated to supporting them the way NaNoWriMo tries to support its participants. What might our writing culture be like then?

What if, instead of asking each other, How many words did you write this week?, writers asked each other questions like, What did your characters teach you this week? What did you learn about your own artistic process? What did you write that required courage, whether because of its content or because you stepped out into new waters of style, genre, vocabulary? What difficult choice did you make concerning either content or craft? What beauty did you create? What love did you show? What empathy did you practice? These are the true hallmarks of progress for the fiction writer: that he or she exhibits dedication to the art and craft of storytelling, and that he or she nurtures a love for fiction’s subject, which is always humankind. Without this progress, a writer’s word count is meaningless—as will be the story those words contain.

Productivity is an idol that can lead to sloppiness and blind us to our real goals, not only as writers but in virtually any area of life. However, I cannot close without acknowledging that it has an equal, opposite idol: perfectionism. For many of us, there is a powerful temptation never to be satisfied—to do the opposite of rushing through sloppy work, and continue revising endlessly long after the work is done. It would be a noble thing if every writer set out to create one masterpiece in a lifetime, but rarely will the current project become that masterpiece. Humility is the only remedy for both of these extremes: humility to submit ourselves to become instruments of God’s creation; humility to look only at what is best for the work, not what is best for its creator’s pride; humility to acknowledge the limits of our own skill, to push them, but also to know when they are reached, and we have produced the best work we are capable of making. Then, and only then, should tortoises and hares alike be ready to cross the finish line and write, “The End.”

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Happy Second Birthday to Jennifer the Damned!

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On Halloween, 2015, I shivered with excitement and sat in the rain all day at my first-ever book event, The Louisiana Book Festival, proudly displaying the fruits of six years of loving labor: hot off the press, my first published novel, Jennifer the Damned. Since then, my weird little vampire adaptation of Crime and Punishment (yes, really) has meandered through the world, finding fans among both vampire lovers and people who never thought they could enjoy a horror novel, and bringing me some truly heartwarming stories from readers who found in its pages exactly the kind of story they needed to help them cope with life’s darkness.

Here’s to all of you, lovely readers, and to the books we love that help to shape our hearts, minds, and souls–as Jennifer has forever shaped mine.

Happy Halloween!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, Part 2

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Hunchback

The second half of my October essay about The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories is now up over at Wiseblood Books. If you missed the first part, you can catch it here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, Part 1

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Exorcist

I have a new essay up over at Wiseblood Books, The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, Part 1. If you’ve ever wondered why stories like Dracula and Frankenstein took such deep root in our cultural imagination, go check it out.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Hurricanes and Walker Percy

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Walker Percy

There’s an article going around the internet among many of my friends, especially the fans of Walker Percy, concerning Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes. “It was his impression that not only he but other people felt better during hurricanes,” Percy wrote in The Last Gentleman, and the article argues that this was Percy’s own opinion. “Midge and the counterman were very happy. The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky and Midge no longer felt obligated to keep her face stiff…. Everything was yellow and still charged up with value.”

Percy’s theory holds that dangerous situations afford us the opportunity to be better than our everyday selves, to become “action heroes or saints.” But he goes further: “I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable—except during hurricanes. They sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, drink, even make love.” (From his story, “Lancelot.”) Percy goes on to say that once the crisis has past and the everydayness of life creeps back in, our hurricane-happiness fades. “After the hurricane they took a good hard look at each other on a sunny Monday morning and got a divorce.”

Walker Percy lived in Louisiana, and no doubt weathered his fair share of hurricanes. I’ve lived in Louisiana almost all my life, and there was a time when I might have agreed with him. That time was before Hurricane Katrina, which happened 15 years after Percy died.

Hurricanes have always been a part of life in Louisiana, and I’ve lived through so many that I’ve lost count. When I was a kid in Baton Rouge, they were actually fun. We always got two days off of school: one to let the storm blow through, one to clean up the tree limbs and get the power back on. Hurricanes were an adventure, sometimes sparking phenomena like green lightning, or turning on lamps in the house all by themselves, both of which happened during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. As long as you didn’t get a tree through the roof, the odds of suffering major damage were low. When this was my experience of hurricanes, I might have thought Percy was on to something.

In the days leading up to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I was twenty-six, single, and I had just bought my first house. I was working two jobs, which between them totaled seven days a week. The prospect the hurricane posed for me was simple: finally, a few days off. My roommate and I invited a friend to come stay with us, and we stocked up on hurricane essentials, namely hurricane cocktail mix and rum. We were not unlike Percy’s couple, except that we liked each other on regular days, too.

And then…

There is no reason to rehash the horrors of Hurricane Katrina here. Suffice it to say that everyone in Louisiana—and Mississippi and  Alabama, and all along the Gulf Coast—experienced a shift in paradigm. Katrina broke the rules. There were no couples happily drinking whiskey in Pass Christian, because Pass Christian basically ceased to exist. It’s true that Katrina turned an awful lot of people into “action heroes and saints,” but the cost of that turn was unprecedented, not only in terms of human suffering, but in the emotional toll it took on our society. There was a weariness that set in with Katrina, a weariness magnified by the equally powerful Hurricane Rita that hit just a few weeks later—a weariness that has only festered and grown over the last twelve years as “once in a thousand years” disasters have continued to plague the Gulf South with frightening regularity. It used to be that the ones who had lost everything in a storm were few, easily aided by the many. Now, it seems the ones who have lost everything—some of them more than once—are the many, and I, with my dry house in Baton Rouge, count myself among the few. It’s not the same house where I camped out for Katrina, thank God. That one flooded last year.

“Action hero” has become for many people just another setting on the dial of life—like father, mother, banker, store clerk, little league coach—as the development of volunteer organizations like the now-famous Cajun Navy can attest. Or the countless groups of volunteers who have become frighteningly adept at gutting flooded houses. Philanthropy isn’t philanthropy anymore. My church parish took up a collection for Hurricane Harvey relief last weekend. It was the largest single collection we’ve ever had. Why? Because it’s the money people gave to all of us last year, and we fully expect that they will send it our way again when the occasion inevitably comes. We shuffle food and water and diapers around from disaster site to disaster site, dreading the day when the ubiquitous Red Cross trucks will tow them our way yet again.

Walker Percy’s return to the “everydayness” of life never really comes.

It was never legitimate to romanticize disaster, though it was common practice in a pre-Katrina world. But to continue, even now, to circulate the idea that hurricanes make us “feel better”… I beg you not to say that to the mother trying to rock her baby to sleep in borrowed blankets on the floor of an overcrowded shelter. I beg you not to say it to the elderly man who lives on social security, who sold his house at a third of its pre-flood value because he could not afford to rebuild. I beg you not to say it to me while I held my sobbing six-year-old in my arms on the day he got out of school to let Harvey pass overhead. He remembered that the last time school was cancelled, it was also gone. It’s sad when we can’t look to our heroes, like Walker Percy, to give us perspective that helps to smooth the rough edges of life. But it’s even sadder when we cling to our heroes’ errors long after the evidence has piled up to prove them wrong.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Where to Find Catholic Fiction

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Good Books

There’s been an awful lot of ink spilled about the rebirth, revitalization, and re-enchanting of Catholic literature in the last several years, complete with the proliferation of journals, publishing houses, and conferences. But did you know there has also been a similar effort to revitalize the marketing and availability of Catholic fiction? Several new ventures have emerged to help readers—as well as parents, teachers, and librarians—connect to all the good work being done in the name of Catholic fiction. Below are the ones I know about. If you know of any others, please spread the word in the comments!

Virtue Works Media

Cathy Gilmore is in the process of building a platform to connect media consumers of all ages to books, movies, and other media that promote one simple thing: virtue. Her vision is comprehensive, looking to serve all ages and genres, including everything from boutique small press fiction to Hollywood blockbusters. Virtue Works Media will eventually bring its catalog directly into parishes, Catholic schools, parish schools of religion, conferences, and anywhere else Catholics gather. Cathy is on a mission to make sure Catholics know they can get their entertainment from a Catholic source and still find works of the very highest quality.

As a start, she’s put together Five Fave Top Ten Lists of books and a few movies for ages preschool through adult. I’ve read enough of the books to know, these are good lists.

Good News! Book Fair

Lizette Lantigua is determined to oust Scholastic from Catholic schools by creating Good News! Book Fair. She offers fairs at every level, from elementary through college, as well as fairs for Catholic parishes or organizations. The books cover every possible genre, fiction and non-fiction alike, hopefully replacing some of the vapid secular offerings with something better, in every sense of the word.

Catholic Reads

Catholic Reads is a brand-spanking-new program launched in 2017, designed to be the Catholic equivalent of BookBub. Every book they review must be offered at a significant discount to receive promotion through the site. Alyssa Watson and her team are a bunch of unabashed sci-fi/ fantasy/ horror nerds—in other words, my kind of people—but the site offers every kind of fiction, from picture books on up.

Catholic Teen Books

Catholic Teen Books is a co-op of about ten Catholic YA authors who write in a variety of genres. They also have a Facebook Page with a slightly broader membership, dedicated to promoting Catholic-themed fiction for middle and high school students.

Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval

The Catholic writers Guild Seal of Approval is designed to help Catholic bookstores find good work to fill their shelves, so it is geared toward retailers rather than readers. Some of the venues mentioned above use it as a shortcut to approving books for their own catalogs. You can find a list of books that have received it on Goodreads.

Happy Reading!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.