Scary Author things

Scary author things I have done today:
1) Sent my first manuscript off for a Beta read. I wrote it 12 years ago and worry it’ll never be good enough to publish. It’s the prequel to Under a Blood Moon, and a fan, an actual fan, sent me asking if it would ever be published. She took the time to send that email – my first piece of fan mail ever – so I can do the work to submit that prequel.

2) Send an email to my wonderful editor at The Wild Rose Press (TWRP) explaining the  complicated situation around Dead Man’s Detective, the first novel of a trilogy set in the same universe as Mallory. It has much darker themes that I suspect  will make TWRP pass. When they do I’ll have to decide if I should keep submitting or venture into the scary waters of self-publishing.

3) Did my taxes. God, there’s nothing worse. I spent about $2000 on writing last year. Ten percent of that was on a custom logo, that I love but haven’t done anything with.  About half of it was on classes, critiques, and workshops. Was the money well spent? Should I have invested in other things? Am I making all the wrong choices? In any other business if you spend more than you earn it’s a disaster, but publishing is a long game. Hopefully, my net loss last year gets evened out next year.

But on a very cheerful note, my writing streak continues: I’ve written at least a thousand words a day, every day since Jan 29. That’s 42 days of writing and a total of 98000 words on the new manuscript. That’s more than enough for a single book (most paranormal romance/urban fantasy stories are 75k to 90k words) but I’m about half-way through and having too much fun to stop.

Research at Cafe Du Monde

Some days the best part of writing is the research:

The next Mallory book is going to take place in and around New Orleans. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the French Quarter soaking the essence of the city…and sipping hot chocolate while eating beignets from Cafe Du Monde. Walking around New Orleans I can’t help but wonder about the person I might have been if I had followed through on my carefully detailed plans to run away to the city the day after high school graduation. Would I have written the same books?

Who I write for

I want to tell you about Jen. She runs triathlons, and has a couple of kids. I know their names and the races she’s going for. It turned out we like the same kind of books, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, vampire smut, that sort of thing.

I’ve never met Jen.

We follow each other online, and she reads my books. She loves them. She says nice things about them on Goodreads and, most importantly, to me. She’s the first reader who got a copy of Blood, Dirt, and Lies, and she sent me a message filled with love for the characters after she finished.

Someone else I’ve never met but follow online is a book reviewer. They hated my book. They wrote a scathing review about subtext I never meant and don’t think is there. (I promise you, when I say someone is a werewolf, that’s what I mean, an actual werewolf. Werewolf is not a stand in for any race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.) I read their review.

Every author will tell you never, ever read reviews. It depresses you. You can’t argue back. You can’t convince them that, honest, the werewolf was just a werewolf. Nope. The review is their opinion and arguing is a waste of breath.

Reading the review threatened to start me in a downward spiral. If my work was that bad, why was I investing so much of my life in writing? I’ll be brutally honest here, it takes me more than a year to get a book drafted, edited, polished, submitted, edited again, and (finally) published. For that effort I can make as little as eight cents per copy sold (sometimes that number goes up as high as a dollar). I’m not in this for the money, but for the joy it brings when someone loves my characters. If people hate them, why not spend that time doing something less horrible?

And I stumbled. I fell. I dropped into that place where writing doesn’t seem worth it. But I remembered Jen, who liked my book just as much as the anonymous person hated it. (Although Jen’s message to me used fewer curse words.)

I’ll now be writing for Jen. I hope everyone else reads my books, and likes them. But if I focus on everyone else and on all those potential negative reviews, I’ll never get any words written. So if you like a sex scene now and then, along with a good mystery about strong, supernaturally powered people who happen to be diverse and three-dimensional, feel free to join Jen and me. For all those folks that don’t, reviewers or not, it’s okay not to like me. I’m not writing for you.

Halloween traditions

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen pictures of my many Halloween/Samhain meals. If you’ve bumped into me in the real world, my enthusiasm for the most sacred Pagan holiday is impossible to miss. I start counting down at the beginning of summer, and the decorations come out after Labor Day. Samhain, the holiday I celebrate, is close enough to secular Halloween practices that I don’t get many chances to talk about my traditions. This year, though, I’ve had a few questions so I’m writing this blog not to say what every Pagan or Wiccan does, but what I do and why.

A seat at the table
Samhain, the last of the Pagan harvest feasts, closes out the year and marks the time when the souls of the dead are able to return to earth. We welcome them into our home by setting a place for them at the table. They get the same china, silverware, and glasses as the rest of us. It’s symbolic; a powerful reminder that the dead are still with us. And while I don’t go so far as to fill their plate, I do make sure my menu would appeal.

Samhain feasts and Halloween meals
If someone you loved was able to come back to your house for one meal, you’d make their favorite foods. And years ago, that’s what I did, making a single, giant Samhain feast filled with the favorite foods from everyone I loved who had died. As I’ve aged, the number of people I’ve lost has grown, and I want to take time to savor the memories and the favorite foods from each one of them. Now I make a special meal each weekend. When I can, I use the recipes from the people I’ve lost. I remember the times we cooked together, or enjoyed a good meal filled with laughter and smiles.

My best friend from college died after going through treatment for breast cancer in 2010. I’ll never forget the elaborate brunches we had together, or the fun breakfasts before class at P.K’s coffee shop. So for her I made waffles with blueberry topping.

My mother-in-law was a famous baker in her day, so much so that her chocolate cake recipe was included in the church cookbook in 1965. I thought about her as I made it. The year the recipe was published she would have been married with babies to raise. She had more responsibility and insanity in her life than I do at the same age, and yet she took the time to sift cocoa into flour for the people she loved. Her recipe still tastes amazing.

Carving jack-o’-lanterns
There are about as many variations on the tale of Jack and his lantern as there are people who tell it. I was raised with the very romantic version:

After a bad deal with the Devil, Jack was taken to hell but the trickster managed to finagle a day pass to see the woman he loved every Samhain. Determined to ensure Jack wouldn’t enjoy his time with her, the Devil insisted Jack carry burning embers in his hands to light his way to the land of the living. If Jack didn’t bring the embers back, there would be no escape the next year. Jack cleverly tossed the embers into a hollowed out turnip. When he arrived at his love’s house he set them at the front door so he could have his unburned hands free for more romantic uses.

Jack’s story, with its brains over brutality moral and a hero who returns to the land of the living for a night, is commemorated by at least a half dozen jack-o’-lanterns by my front door, in my kitchen, and around my house.

While I have at least a dozen more traditions, like visiting graveyards and giving out candy, I never miss these three big ones. As a kid, Halloween seems creepy-cool, a magical time when anything can happen. Samhain with its focus on the dead and how they influence our lives seemed a bit stuffy. But as an adult, the memories of people who have died bring me joy. When I cook for them, using their recipes, I feel like I’m sharing a meal with them again. I love the way this time of year lets me honor their memories, share their stories, and keep them present in my life.

Keep Moving Forward

I write my blog posts months in advance, setting the posts to go live automatically. I don’t always know what I’m going to talk about, except for certain posts I always do – my year in reading review in January, my emotional breakdown every December (I’m just gonna own that), and Pagan New Year’s goals for the next year. Instead, blogging in advance is a way of trying to predict the future. Publishing is a slow moving industry so I can guess at what will happen and usually get it right.

Today’s blog is the opposite of that.

I planned it out last June. At the time I was excited about a new project. A shiny new story idea woke me at 3am in early June. At the same time, I submitted the same topic to a very popular blog written by a woman I admired.  The story idea took off, like wild fire. I wrote 60K words in about four weeks. My submission to the blog made it past 342 other applications to the final round of 10 possible candidates. I sketched out the next two book ideas in the series. My submission was selected for the blog!

With all of that positive energy I found myself moving forward with plans, and making changes to things that were already in place. If that crazy 3am idea took hold, if I was blogging on that topic, then I needed to change my brand. I put logo plans on hold. I networked with new people. I wrote a much different version of this blog post, and scheduled it for October 1. It announced all my triumphs and showed off my shiny new position. I dreamed.

Right around when my first blog post for the new venture when live, I started to wake up. Blog posts are tricky things. There was backlash about this one (nope, not linking to it), and a need for last minute edits that should have happened sooner. I received some tough messages on social media. I spent a fairly miserable night. Friends told me I’d pretty much ruined my life, and my name was mud on the internet. Others sent comfort. I told myself “you’re nobody until somebody on the internet hates you.”

Life is like that. You adjust expectations and you keep moving forward.

Except forward didn’t happen.

My emails didn’t get replies. Other blog submissions languished unanswered in cyberspace. At 60k words that book idea dried up like the desert in August. My October 1st blog, written when I had stars in my eyes back in June, was horribly inaccurate. I pulled it from the schedule while I pondered what to say. I’d hinted about my success on twitter, too excited not to say something. Now that success was gone.

As Mental Health Awareness day started to pop up in my life, I realized sharing the story of a professional failure wasn’t such a bad idea. I tried something new. It was outside my comfort zone but filled me with joy for a few weeks. Then the project ground to halt. I’d failed, yes, but in a graceful way. I met my obligations. I treated everyone involved with respect. And, hey, I’ve got an almost finished 60k word manuscript out of it. That’s nothing to be sorry about.

Failure is inevitable. Writers need to eat rejection for breakfast and start over again at lunch.

I’ve spent some time moping. I’m not going to deny that. But now it’s time to move forward again. And if this path doesn’t work, I’ll find another one. It’s not how fast I go that matters, but that I keep moving on. There are too many stories to tell to waste time on the things that fail.

Happily Ever After

An online reading group I frequent recently blew up over a book that ended with a (dreaded) cliffhanger. As much as authors seems to love them, readers I talk to hate the idea of not knowing how the story ends. I admit, ambiguity makes me nervous. My own real life is filled with it right now. Politics shifting my day job in slippery ways, questions about family members, hurricanes, and the possibility of a move means I’ve got a lot of cliffhangers going on.

It’s exhausting, and there’s nothing better for me than to escape into a book. I’m reading recommendations from friends, but only after pestering them to death about the ending. I hate reading books that don’t have a happy ending. I don’t need every page to be sweetness and light, and I certainly don’t want a story with some tension and hurt, but in the end, everything needs to be all right.

If I was reading to learn something or reading about a historic period, I could understand a downer ending. That’s real life. But I read for pleasure. When I’m not editing or on a writing jag, I finish three novels a week. If I wasn’t careful, I could pack a lot of depressing stories into my head, which is exactly what I don’t want.

I promise my books will always feature an upbeat ending. People won’t be perfectly healed millionaires without a care in the world, but they will be hopeful, happy, and ready to take on what’s next. Before you chastise me for being unrealistic, I’d like to point out that my world contains vampires, witches, and ghosts. If you can handle that much fantasy, the idea of a happy ending shouldn’t be impossible.

Of course, a happy ending doesn’t mean there were never any problems along the way. I’m in the midst of copy edits for the next Mallory book and I can assure you all of the characters face challenges. Relationships have ups and downs; a couple even break up entirely. There are bad days at work, and fights at home. But in the end things are all right, or maybe they’re going to be all right despite everything.

Without realizing it, I ended this book with a party, just like Fire in Her Blood ended with a party. My YA book, The Mermaid and the Murders, also ended with a party. While the party came a few chapters from the end of Under a Blood Moon…yep, it’s a pattern. I’m not sure if I’ll worry about correcting it though – the good times in life should be celebrated. Small celebrations for hitting some goal, big celebrations for big events, and quiet celebrations that no one else knows about remind us that good things happen. They help us mark the good times and give us joyful memories to sweeten the hard times.

Because there are hard times – ugly times when we can’t face another day and we don’t know what’s going to come next. And you’ll find those in my books, but not, I promise, at the end.

What we say, what we don’t say

When I edit, I have to block out the world around me, ignoring the news, fun events, and generally forcing myself to focus on word choice, grammar, and mechanics. This year, that editing cave saved me from becoming embroiled in a couple of controversial situations. Now that I’ve mailed my copy edits to my editor, I’m reading over scores of emails (literally several hundred of them) and trying to figure out how to respond.

First there’s DragonCon, an event I’ve loved attending over the last thirteen years. The largest fan-run convention in the southeast, folks affectionately call D*C “nerd mardi gras.” This year some 84,000 people came to geek out. Unfortunately, there were a myriad of small-scale assaults, like the guy going around ripping off costumes glued onto delicate body parts, and one serious incident were two chairs were thrown from a tenth-floor balcony into the crowd below, causing two women to go to the emergency room with head wounds.

I enjoyed parts of DragonCon: the Georgia Philharmonic Symphony playing sci-fi and fantasy themes, the random moments of joy when I discovered new music by seeing bands play live in the halls, the atmosphere, the shopping. But I don’t feel safe anymore. A woman in front of me was grabbed by a stranger intent on pulling off her clothes despite her protests. There was no security and nothing to be done about it. That’s not a party I want to support.

But should I say something? Should I wipe my blog free of references to DragonCon from years past when things were reasonable? I’m not naïve enough to believe there was never a problem at any of the previous Cons I attended, but the silence from DragonCon staff seems deafening. Do I say my relationship with them ends as of this year, or do I volunteer and work from the inside to make things better?

Meanwhile the Romance Writers’ of America, a group I recently rejoined, struggled with questions of racism and privilege. The published authors network (PAN) forum included a note from a longtime volunteer who felt outreach efforts were misplaced. It stated that rather than recruiting and working to include marginalized groups, RWA should only focus on writing. Almost immediately, authors big and small stepped in to say that’s not okay.

RWA has a history of being a group for heterosexual, cisgender white women, but that’s changing. Most of the authors who spoke want it to keep changing. Some of them felt passionately enough to copy quotes and comments from the private forum group onto social media, much in the way I’m posting this to my blog. That’s where the problems started. Until the information was shared outside of the group, the conversation focused on the problem. Once it became a public issue, people wanted to talk about privacy and witch-hunts. It was no longer about discrimination or diversity, but about victims and rule breakers.

The two situations are very different, but coming late to the debates thanks to editing, there’s a common question of what do I say? And where do I say it? Does it make a difference if I speak out on the internet or in person? Is saying something on my blog enough or do I need to plaster the same message on all my social media outlets?

One of my favorite philosophers is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s the one who said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I wish I had a better idea of what being silent means for me, in this moment. I won’t deny this year has been hard – disasters, human rights issues, and violence have dominated the news. I see protesters speaking out, spreading hope, and people working hard to find solutions. For me I think the solution is not to name people or harp on controversy. There are plenty of people doing that. Instead I’m going to write the stories I want to see in the world, and hope their visions turn into reality.

Erotica in art and my writing

The news came just before a big vacation, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. After three years of planning and saving, suddenly all I could think about was the proclamation so casually dropped in my lap:

“If your book has more than four sex scenes, it’s erotica.”

And just like that all the times I’ve tried explain that my books have sex scenes but are actually mysteries with supernatural elements became a lie. All those jokes I’ve told about writing “vampire smut” became my truth. I write…Erotica.

While I spend a lot of time writing sex scenes, making sure that the action is sizzling but also true to the relationship on the page, I never put myself in the category. I write about women, and they have sex. So yes, my characters have sex, which is described in about the same detail as their meals and their clothes. All of those things are important to them, I couldn’t write out all of the sex to focus only on being a police detective and still give you a realistic picture of Mallory’s life.

Instead, you’ll get (roughly) four sex scenes per book, always when it’s natural and called for as part of the plot. In Under A Blood Moon, I counted them out to be sure the pacing made sense. In Fire in Her Blood, I ended up cutting nearly 60k words and two sex scenes. In the next book, Blood, Dirt, and Lies, I “shut the bedroom door” to make sure there were only four at my editor’s request.

Turning a detailed scene into a single line (something like “they melted together, in a dance of passion and love”) doesn’t bother me. Writing out sex all together would. I write my books to escape from the mundane-workday-world, I don’t want to escape to someplace that doesn’t have any passion.

But the label haunted me as I went through great places in Europe. I visited the palace where Mark (from Under a Blood Moon) grew up, a wine cellar that will show up as a future vampire’s bedroom, and a baroque estate that’s a perfect residence for Jakob for the 1600s. In the back of my head I wondered: does all this matter if it’s just erotica?

And then I went to the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich and saw this:

An ancient Egyptian statue depicts a couple having sex.

Ancient Egyptian Erotica on display. In a museum. Where you go to learn about culture. Shocking.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks sex is part of a normal, healthy life. And while my work may now be classified as “erotica” the stories haven’t changed. I’m still writing thrillers with romance and spooky parts. I’m still showing normal relationships with ups and downs, jealous moments and tender parts. I hope that’s something the world will still read, because I wouldn’t want to write any other way.

 

Running and Writing

A stack of my published novels and several medals from races I've finished

Published books and Finisher’s Medals, you can’t get either one without perseverance and hard work.

Sometimes the similarities between my two favorite things frighten me. There’s my writing, which I love dearly and could never live without, and there’s running, which has become so entrenched in who I am I wouldn’t know who I was without it. Actually, I could flip those two descriptions around and not be lying. In honor of that, the ways writing is like running (or maybe running is like writing?).

Time off hurts, and you don’t know why
I’ve taken time off from both my writing and my running. Those periods were filled with a quiet discomfort; a pang of longing struck me when I saw someone running or walked by a bookstore knowing my books weren’t inside. I wasn’t ready to run, I didn’t want to write, but I wanted the feeling of having run, the satisfaction I felt when I had written. If I was consciously choosing not to run or write, why did it bother me so much? I still don’t know.

Breaks sneak up on you
Even when you’re feeling restless and unhappy for no good reason, it’s easy to miss that you’ve taken a break from writing or running. Running logs and writing journals, no matter how devoutly kept, don’t open themselves up on the counter. There is no blinking light proclaiming how long it’s been since your last run or writing session. It isn’t until you sit and think about it that you realize the general malaise comes from not doing the thing you love.

Junk miles and Junk words
Runners will tell you either there are no junk miles – every step improves you as a runner –or that you should never run junk miles – if you’re hurting or your equipment is wrong, don’t run. Writers feel the same way about junk words – either you need to warm up by writing whatever comes to mind (you can always delete it later) or you’re better off not forcing yourself to write when the words aren’t coming. Runners will tell you how they forced themselves out the door and ran better than all their dreams. Writers will remind you Diana Gabaldon began the bestselling Outlander series as a way to warm up for her “real” writing.

The not fun parts make the fun parts better
Most writers don’t enjoy editing. Promoting a book, writing a synopsis, and even querying an agent don’t come up on their list of fun things. But they all make your writing better. The same way lifting weights and doing yoga isn’t running, but they improve your running. So while I’d rather be creating a whole new story, I put in my time editing and handling the business side things. Just like while I’d rather be running, I take the time to stretch, practice my yoga, and lift to ensure my muscles are ready for my next run.

When you’ve had a great session, you’re the only one who knows
Let’s face it, no one likes the runner who struts about the office bragging about their morning run. I’ve gone years without mentioning my races or runs because of the jabs I heard directed at other runners when they left the room. Writing comes in even lower on the acceptable office chatter list. I’ve never been able to talk about crafting a sex scene or how a werewolf really would kill someone without catching some discreet eye rolling. I loved the cover for Fire in Her Blood so much I dashed down the hall to share it with a coworker, who (bless her!) indulged my enthusiasm even though she didn’t share even a drop of it.

The controversy around statistics
Get a group of runners together and the talk will turn to miles per hour, or the miles they run each week, just as surely as authors will talk about their word count – how hard it was to make or how they flew past it. But both groups struggle with how you should talk about these things. Writers debate if it’s fair to post a daily word count – doesn’t that make slower writers feel bad? Runners chant “run your own race”, even while they casually drop their own results.

So yes, my two loves, the two ways I define myself, have more than a few things in common. I’m not sure what that says about me, but since I’ve run today (a little more than 5k) and I’ve gotten my writing in (1200+ words), I’m not going to worry too much.

 

 

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Time to Take First Things First

In my last blog, I talked about time-tithing. I was gripped with a fever to give back to the writing community and impressed with the way giving back helped me as a person and a writer. I followed through with what I posted, and volunteered as a last-minute judge for the annual writing contest.

It’s important for me to judge books the way I would want my own to be judged. I’ll never forget the seasoned, privileged romance novelist who, upon hearing a summary of Under a Blood Moon, immediately said “you could never pay me enough to read that sort of trash”. Now serial killer werewolves aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t make them trash.  While I might not like your topic or the way your heroine thinks, that doesn’t make a book trash. I spent about half a day on each book, looking at the mechanics of the story and not how my own values applied to the characters.

I also volunteered my time to a local quilt guild, and inspired a great story idea. My work judging novels helped my writing and motivated me to join RWA (Romance Writers of America). So time-tithing was a success! But that great story idea demanded my immediate attention, with the words running like quicksilver through my fingers, teaching me another important lesson:

You need time to do the things that matter most.

The story idea came to me at 3am on a Saturday morning. I gave up about six hours of sleep planning and plotting. I started my writing time an hour earlier and kept going an hour longer than usual. I shorted myself on sleep, whittled my morning beauty routine down to a quick five minutes, and barely made it to my day job on time. I spent all of my time writing and editing. I didn’t cook meals (sorry, Tiger!), clean house, or go out with friends. A story grabbed me and I held on tight.

In a week I wrote nearly 7,500 words.

I have a clean plot. I have a character reference sheet. I know how the story will go and how I can promote it. And I hope to all the Gods above the words keep coming. Because there’s really nothing better than writing. While the idea would never have come without the volunteer work, the words wouldn’t have come if I didn’t shut everything out.

I’m very lucky to have a partner who will support me and a day job that isn’t jeopardized when I go on a writing spree. But I also need to make good choices and set clear boundaries. It’s easy to lose time on meaningless things: TV shows, facebook, internet “research”. There a million metaphors about managing your time. YouTube videos show people putting large rocks into glass jars, then smaller rocks, then pebbles, then sand, until finally the jar must be full. But no! There’s room for water. Search a little longer and you’ll find the advice that a woman should have four things in her life – her work, her family, her health, and one other thing. (Not two! You can’t ever have two jobs or two hobbies, nope not enough time.)

I don’t agree with all the advice that’s out there, but this last week has made it clear: I need to do what matters most first. For me that’s writing. My commitment to my writing – whether it’s this blog, a guest blog, a short story, or a novel – comes first. Any other commitments need to wait. If they can’t wait, I don’t have time for them in my life.