12/5/11

To Be Read Pile

I tend to be a little paranoid about losing my ‘voice’ as an author, so I don’t read a lot of fiction when I’m in the thick of writing.  I’m working on a new manuscript so my To Be Read (TBR) is about to take over the book shelf.  The books and a bit of explanation:

 

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler – Noir/Mystery
I can’t stop reading this book. No matter how many times I read it, it ends up back in the TBR pile every year.

The Wedding Quilt – Jennifer Chiaverini- Women’s fiction
I quilt. I read. This book combines the two hobbies. After 17 books in the series the characters are like old friends. The author has jumped the series ahead by about 20 years. I’m wicked curious to see what happens to everyone.

The Price of Freedom – Ann Crispin – Fantasy/Historic
I read this during the weeks before DragonCon but I didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it. It’s up for a re-read.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman – Fantasy
I enjoyed this book greatly on first read, and with rumors that it’ll be a miniseries on HBO soon, it’s due for a re-read.

Sup with the Devil – Barbara Hamilton – Historic Mystery.
The third in the Abigail Adams mysteries hasn’t grabbed me yet (118 pages in). I enjoy Barbara’s work enough that I’ll keep going back to it.

The illusion of Murder – Carol McCleary – Steampunk/Mystery/Historic
I devoured the first book in this series, and immediately went for the second. On reflection though, I realized the first book ran long. I’m now waiting for a good long flight to start the second.

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht – literary fiction?
On loan from a friend, it’s set in a part of the world where I spent some time. Despite that I can’t seem to get through it. 129 pages in and I’m still waiting for the story to start.

Candlenight – Phil Rickman – Mystery-Horror from the UK.
I’m a fan of this author, but 35 pages in the novel didn’t grab me, so it went back on the shelf. I’ll pick it back up again soon-ish.

The Doctor’s Family – Lenora Worth & The Cowboy’s Lady – Carolyn Aarsen – Inspirational Romances in the Rocky Mountain Heirs series
I read the first 2 books in the series. The bad guy getting away with crimes (kidnapping, harassment, theft, vandalism, arson) is getting really old. That said, the only way to see him get caught is to read the next 4 books in the series.

Huntress – Malinda Lo- Fantasy; Fuzzy Nation – John Scalzi – SciFi; After the Golden Age – Carrie Vaughn – Urban Fantasy (but not the kind with vampires)
All got great writes up on Tor.com.

All the others were recommended by friends or have a style I want to emulate in my writing. Some of the historic ones were published in a time frame I’m writing in now. I love to ‘research’ the values of a time by reading what was written then. Of course the funniest part of having a TBR pile of epic proportions is that there are still books on my ‘to be bought’ list.

10/24/11

Cover Art trumps everything

I intended to fill this space with a lengthy discussion on irresponsibility and if a writer needs to be irresponsible from time-to-time so they can have the adventures that make for good fiction. I would evoke Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds, talk about dangerous hobbies and drug use, finally bringing it all around to a very irresponsible proposition I’ve recently received.

If that proved too difficult, my backup topic was the way October always leaves me feeling as scattered as the golden and red foliage on the sidewalk, with my energy going to a dozen different places and making almost no difference in any of them. A few paragraphs devoted to how October always feels like New Year’s Eve to me, a time to make resolutions, to assess the damage of the year before and to promise never to do any of it again. October is my time for cutting back and saying no.

Those were my plans. They were good ones even, and maybe some week I’ll get back to them, but something arrived in my inbox that pushed everything else out of my mind: the Art department at Tor books requested cover concepts for my first novel.

Like most would-be authors, I’ve imagined my name on the cover of a book, specifically a paperback book, at least a million times. I’ve picked fonts, auditioned characters for the front space, and decided on colors. It would be a lie to say I’ve stuck with any of those for very long. I posses only a tiny bit of artistic talent, and I doubt myself often. Deep inside I can’t wait to see what a real artist will do.

I collect vintage noir mysteries. The easiest ones to find come from famous authors, Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Raymond Chandler. I love the evolution of the images, in the 1930s a woman has long flowing hair, in the 1970s the same character wears her tresses shellacked into submission. Up until now my characters lived solely in my imagination. I’m excited to see how they look in someone else’s.

10/10/11

The best of fall TV: BBC’s Bedlam

Fall is my favorite season for a lot of reasons: the weather, the leaves, and the excuse to decorate with skulls (current skull count: 9, current pumpkin count: 14, both seem to grow every day) and, of course, new fall tv shows. Hollywood embraced fantasy and horror this year, bringing shows that appeal to people like me – geeks.

While I’m waiting patiently for the fantasy based “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm”, both about fairy tale characters living a normal life, the horror shows are already captured on my TIVO. I’m not an author snob who argues that the only way to tell a story is the written word. I see the promise that comes when a brilliant director uses images and visual metaphor to tell a story. I coo over artistic interpretation. I love a good symbolic opening shot.

None of which I found in American Horror Story. I gave it thirty minutes. Thirty minutes I’ll never get back. In that time the show offered one ghost, two deaths, one politically incorrect lush, a broken marriage, and a very creepy disabled girl. I prefer my haunted house shows have more haunting, more scares. Either way, the most intriguing story element in a haunted house story should not be the S&M suit in the attic.

At the opposite side of the spectrum is BBC’s Bedlam. It just plain does everything right. The scares are subtle enough to work on your imagination. In the first episode the dripping of water when all of the taps are dry made me play the ‘is he or isn’t he insane’ game. That’s my favorite part of horror, the psychological scare, the ‘did I see that’ debate. Horror shouldn’t be about buckets of blood and loud violins, but about doubt and disbelief. Introduce a main character who has just gotten out of the nut house, put him in a highly suggestible state, and then amp up the tension with things that could be explained away and I’m hooked.

Most ghost stories aren’t new. I first read the story that introduces Bedlam in the third grade. A driver picks up a passenger by the side of the road, spooky events result. That first time I heard it the passenger was the ghost of teenage girl on her way to prom. In the first episode of Supernatural the passenger was a hitchhiking La Lorna. I’ve found historic accounts of the same story, with the ghost-passenger as a man killed by highway men or a woman on her way to be married. Anna Dressed in Blood (the best ghost story I’ve read this year) twisted the tale to include a James Dean look-alike. Bedlam twists it again, making the passenger the ghost hunter, the driver the ghost.

That level of sophistication permeates the show. When a couple kisses passionately we know a ghost is behind them. Does the director pan out to show us the dripping, bloody mess? Nope. In one of the huge mirrors in the room? No again. Instead the shadow of the ghost appears in a smaller side mirror, just enough that it registers, not enough that you can see it clearly. Brilliant. Restrained. I can’t wait to see more.

09/30/11

Clutter

I tend to move often, which is to say more than most military families but less than your average hobo. (Probably, trustworthy hobo movement statistics are hard to find these days.) For a while, every July found me knee deep in packing paper and boxes. One of the benefits of all that moving is a total lack of clutter. It’s hard to be sentimental about something when you’re unwrapping it for the fourth or fifth time in as many years. All the adorable knickknacks and cute curios become so much sentimental junk. Eventually, it all ends up in the Good Will box, usually just after a move is completed. I find myself unpacking, tired and hot, wondering why I hauled a ceramic chef statue across five states when I don’t even remember who gave it to me.

There’s something wonderfully cathartic about that Good Will box, the way it holds things I no longer have to carry, worries that will cease, and burdens I’ve put down. My unconventional upbringing taught me that you don’t own things, things own you. Being freed from that responsibility always feels so liberating I wish I could do the same thing for my writing.

I’ve always struggled with a metaphor to describe how my writing mind works. While it’s not pretty the closest I can come is a sponge, a white sponge, the kind you might use to clean up the kitchen sink. You’d wipe up some spilled orange juice and the sponge would be tinted orange on one side. Then there would be jelly, adding a red line down the center. By the end of breakfast there’s a smear of black too. (I always burn the toast.) What’s left on that sponge could be transferred to paper, and if you spent enough money on the frame would be art.  My writing is the sponge, the events I encounter are the jelly, juice, and charcoal. That frame? It’s editing, polishing, and more than a little hard work.

The problem is the clutter, the things in my non-writing life that get in the way. They’re like a giant pitcher of red kool-aid that gets dumped on the counter. Sure the sponge can take it, but now it’s completely red. Two or three washings later, and it’s still red. Everything is tainted with it. It takes ages to fade.

If I could create a mental Good Will box I’d stuff it with doctor appointments, medical worries, the current financial crisis (the country’s not mine), all my worries about the people I love, and all my fears for the future. I know those events shape me, and I want the power of the emotions they create in my work, but I don’t want my work to sound like a journal of my own issues. I hate thinking someone could pick up my book 15 years from now and say ‘that’s when she had to take the rabbit editor to the vet’ or ‘that’s when she was dieting’.

I don’t mind knowing that it happens. My delightful agent once realized that my character woke up at the beginning of each chapter, just like I sat down to write first thing each morning. I edited the copious mornings out with a smile, glad to know that my life hadn’t overshadowed my writing in the end. And that’s just the way I like it.

 

 

09/19/11

Beta-Reading and Back Cover Blurbs

The cold came from no where. I avoid contact with sick people. I wash my hands several times a day, especially after I get off the train. (Nothing will ever convince me they aren’t Petri dishes.) I eat healthy most of the time, I work out, and I always carry and use hand sanitizer.

Still I ended up in bed, shaking with cold even as my temperature rose. Most cold medicine is off limits to me (being brain damaged has many perks, that’s not one of them) so the only thing to do was wait out the misery. I piled comic books, novels, and my laptop on the bed. Stocked up on Gatorade and cough drops and waited.

My email chirped at me, a short story from Jami Gold appeared. It needed a beta read, and I needed distracting. A perfect fit.  Beta Reading is the wonderful experience of reading a story before it’s finished, and contributing to the perfect tale it will be someday. The beauty of these almost-there manuscripts is the way they open up your mind. With the story half or three-quarters unwritten you find yourself playing with the ideas. How should the heroine have acted? Does the hero need a flaw or two? What would I make them do differently? What the heck is a snuggery?

Jami’s short story not only grabbed me so hard I failed to notice the ever growing pile of tissues by the laptop, it inspired me to a new idea. Like most of my shiny new amazing ideas, I have no idea if it’ll be finished. (Finishing stories is the hardest thing for me.) But the back cover blurb looks something like this:

If you die with a sin on your soul, your ghost will haunt your loved ones forever, destroying everything they have and driving them mad. Unless they can find someone to purify you…

 Andra was born with the gift of purity; the touch of her hand can cleanse a soul and put it to rest or change filthy sludge to clean water. Employed by a noble house she ensures ghostly crimes never trouble the high-born. No matter how much they sin.

 Chatham doesn’t have that luxury. A whore’s son from downriver, he kills ghosts with a blessed knife and his wits. He’s never met a Purity, but he’s watched plenty of his friends die from dirty water.

 When Andra overhears a dark secret she must flee the safety of her post. Chatham’s bar is the first refuge she seeks. He hates her on principle, and she hates to ask for his help. But they’ll have to work together, the safety of their world depends on it.

Nifty, huh? And all because I was willing to Beta Read.

09/14/11

My Writing Year — I’m a little lost

I’m in an odd place writing-wise. I’ve returned my manuscript revisions to my editor. I don’t know when she’ll get back to me, two weeks? Two months? If there’s anything my journey to publication has taught me it’s that publishing moves at its own pace. Even if I did know exactly the day and the hour she’ll to return my writing to me, I can’t predict her reaction. There’s more than a good chance we’ll do another round of editing (as a debut author, I’m totally fine with that possibility) or we could move immediately into copy-editing.

With that uncertainty I’m not sure how to move forward. The life-cycle of a manuscript for me is:

  • 3 to 4 months takes a story from idea to first draft manuscript
  • 3 weeks from draft manuscript to polished
  • Off to my thoroughly awesome Beta readers, who are completely worth their weight in gold.
  • Back from the Beta readers, the manuscript gets another three to four week edit.
  • At this point it’s polished enough to go to my agent.
  • My agent (Love her!) usually has a few comments, so there’s another editing period.
  • Back to my agent the manuscript begins its trip to the publishing houses.

The trick is, these steps don’t happen in a vacuum. While manuscript 1 (MMS1) is with the Beta readers, manuscript 2 (MSS2) begins the journey. I never edit a story immediately after I’ve finished it, it needs time to rest. The writing cycle looks a little bit like this:

Month 1 to 4: MSS1 is written.
Month 5: MSS1 rests. MSS2 begins.
Month 8: MSS2 wraps up. Begin editing MSS1
Month 9: MSS1 goes off to Beta Readers. Begin MSS3.
Month 12: Wrap up MSS3. Begin Editing MSS2.  MSS1 comes back from Beta and gets in line behind MSS2.

(repeat until MSS100, at which point I intend to take a trip around the world.)

This year hasn’t gone exactly according to plan. Looking back at my writing journal I can reconstruct my writing work this year to be:

  • Jan to March: MSS1 (which I’d begun a year ago and lost interest in)
  • April to August: MSS2
  • August: edits to Waking Up Dead
  • September: Uh… Umm… let me get back to you on that.

I’d like to complete the very rough first draft of another manuscript before the end of the year. Three manuscripts a year feels like I’m taking my writing seriously and doing a good job. MSS2, which I wrapped up in early August, is off with a Beta reader, so it’s on track. MSS1 is off with my agent, so it’s on track. So right now (literally at this very instant) I should be starting a new story. (Waits for inspiration.) (Nothing comes.) But really, shouldn’t I hold off on starting something new until I know I won’t be forced to set it down for more work on Waking Up Dead?  Or should I take this downtime to work on promoting Waking Up Dead, or should I be doing…. Some other great thing some one on the internet will suggest right now? Please?

 

09/6/11

DragonCon Report

Panels: My panel, Brigands and Buccaneers: Myth and Reality of Pirates, went well. We had a variety of authors and pirate fans giving some great different perspectives. Ann Crispin, author of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom, led the group on a discussion that covered pirates from sweet Disney to bloody historic.

When I wasn’t behind the microphone I spent most of my time in the Science and Skeptic tracks. Sunday’s “How to Raise a Mad Scientist” with Dr. Pamela Gay taught me how to make fireballs with the things I have around the house. Later that day the Skeptic track’s “Very Superstitious….” explored some interesting research about how people form superstitions. Two years ago at DragonCon I viewed Jupiter, and Io (the saucy little moon that she is) winked at me. This year I viewed solar flares and sun spots through three different solar telescopes. Sadly, I didn’t see the dragon.

Corsets: This was the first year I didn’t bring a new corset home from DragonCon. I blame two things. One of my favorite corset sellers treated me poorly/rudely. The cost of her corsets had doubled from 2009, but I could still see buying one. However, after lacing me into a corset that clearly didn’t work for me she told me she didn’t have any more time for me and walked away. I won’t be recommending her ever again. I held out hope that the always wonderful Brute Force Studios would have something for me. Sadly, the recent hurricane damaged most of their stock. They came to Con with only a handful of corsets, most in patterns I already have. Ah well, that just means two corsets next year.

Hotel: I stayed at the Marriott Marquis this year. I’ve split my DragonCon time between the Marquis and the Hyatt, and I’m wondering if it’s time to try something new. While the Marriott still offers a wonderful central location there are no almost no track rooms (places where the bulk of the Con programming takes place) in the hotel. Easy access to shopping (all three dealers rooms) and the vaccination clinic is handy, but not as good as being able to pop down a few stairs to get into a panel on short notice. As always, rooms for next year’s Con need to be booked in October (a full 11 months ahead of time) so I’ll be deciding where to go soon.

As always the spectacle of DragonCon – the costumes, the people, the crowds – blew me away. The hard work that goes into the outfits (and bodies) you see on the show floor clearly shows.  But this year, my favorite was fairly low tech.  Baby Steampunk:

08/22/11

The timeline so far…

Ever been curious about the path to publication? Here’s mine (at least so far):

September 2007: Waking up in a very swish room at the Walt Disney World Contemporary Resort, a scene came to me: Elisabeth Hicks, war veteran and detective, at a party with a beautiful woman (who looked a bit like this) who wants her to do a dangerous job. I wrote furiously, for two hours before check out, through the ride to the airport, and into the hour before boarding my plane to head home.

December 2007: I picked up the scene again, and decided I had to know how Hicks got to that party. I started with page one, and wrote my way up to it, then past it as the New Year turned. At the end of January 2008, I’d finished the first draft.

I spent 2008 working closely with an editor in the hopes of getting a contract for another manuscript I’d written. The editor requested major revisions, and I spent most of my time on then, taking breaks here and there to polish the Hicks story.

March 2009: The editor I’d worked with for nearly a year rejected the manuscript. She asked if I had anything else to show her and I sent the revised and newly named Waking Up Dead manuscript.

June 2009: I got a contract offer for Waking Up Dead. I took the contract to a local attorney who is also an agent. She advised me to shop the work around, saying “if you get one offer, you’ll get others”. I attended my first writers’ conference just a week later, and learned enough to write my first query letters.

November 2009: Waking Up Dead got me my agent.

March 2010:  I got the phone call from my agent that two editors were interested in Waking Up Dead. Delighted I set to work on the background materials they requested. Then I waited. And waited some more.

July 2010: Contract negotiations began with one of the editors.

March 2011: The contract was finalized!

August 2011: And now I’m starting on the edits. Opening up a document with a plethora of comments and line edits is enough to make anyone feel lost but I followed some advice from a great author and started with the easy ones. I dealt the grammatical changes in a few days. Now it’s time for the hard work, the ‘brain surgery’ where a scene from day 10 in the story moves to day four, and the tough decisions, like whether or not to add a B-plot or to cut two characters that I loved.

There’s the work, and then there’s the nagging voice of self-doubt. If I change enough little things, do I change the over-all tone of the story? I worry that the voice of my favorite characters is getting mixed up with my editor’s voice. I fret I’m taking too long. I fret I’m not taking long enough. I’ve switched to reading my way through, starting with page one, instead of just going through addressing the comments. I’m hoping that will help.

08/9/11

A Sense of History

I’m just back from a weekend visiting the elders of my family, the people who refused to escape to Florida when they got the chance, who instead endured the Northern winters with a stoic pragmatism. We celebrated an 88th birthday and talked about the past. It took me only a few hours to notice their words coming from my mouth, the way my voice picked up the pattern of their speech. The ‘shall we say’s and ‘Oh boy’s, and a new favorite of mine ‘he was really hauling mail’ for some one driving too fast.

When writers think of a sense of place they often describe a setting, the trees or lack of them, the richness of the landscape, the breezes, the humidity. I’ve read about buildings and castles, but so rarely does place include the thing I steeped in all weekend: history.

Not history in the global sense, but a personal history. This was where your great-greats had a country store. This was where the people you love were baptized. This was the ice cream shop we went to after baseball games.

I write about small towns because I love them. Yes, I think they could use a little excitement (usually in the form of vampires and werewolves) but that sense of place and belonging draws me back. The way a neighbor remembers you from childhood, the way you give directions based on businesses that closed years ago.

There’s ritual too, ones that my elders practice without realizing it. They eschew air conditioning and after supper a nightly dance happens where each neighbor opens the doors to the house and sits out on the lawn enjoying the cool breezes. There’s another practice of going to the graves of our loved ones, telling the dark spots in the earth our latest news. It’s hard to imagine the people I love down there, tucked under blankets of wood and concrete, sleeping in earthen beds, but I go along just the same, telling the same stories to the air with each stop on our graveyard tour.

The corn grows up right next to the graveyard; taller than I am and planted so thick you can’t see between the rows. There’s a farmer’s market where I buy a few ears, each as long as my forearm and powerfully sweet. We eat German pastries and listen to the radio. I tease that I’ll force my elders to get internet access, they’ve barely accepted that the television is better than the radio.

There’s a difference in values. They endure things, like hot summer nights where the heat stops you from sleeping and the many tragedies of growing old, while I want to fix things. They force me to take step back and rethink my choices, to remember my history. I find myself wanting to reconnect, to return to the times they talk about, but only hours after I arrive home, I’m grateful I can’t, happy to be in conditioned air, eating sushi, and checking to see if my DVR caught all my favorite SciFi shows.

08/2/11

Avoiding Scams at DragonCon (or any other Convention)

Writing scams are many and varied. No one does a better job of covering them than the amazing Writer Beware blog.  If you’re writing you need to read their blog on a regular basis. It will protect you and your work.

But what about your pocket money? What about the money you’re hoping to blow at DragonCon or ComicCon or the money you’re saving up for next year’s Romance Writers of America conference? That’s what I want to talk about, because even though we’re a year away from some Cons (SDCC, RWA), we’re only 30 days away from others (DragonCon). My tips to keep your money safe at any Con:

Be cautious when buying commissioned work. Walking through an artist alley your fingers itch to take things off the walls. In the dealers’ hall your eyes are nearly blinded by the sparkly objects. What you see is amazing, but it could be truly awesome with just a few small changes. An easily approachable salesman strikes up a conversation, and moments later you hand over more money than you expected to spend with the promise of a custom piece in the near future. But will it ever come?

Maybe. Most artists are honest people. They know they live by their reputation in the community and they won’t risk that for your commission. Mistakes do happen though, so before you plunk down money do a little homework.  Check out the artist or creator on the web. Do they have a web page? Is it filled with grammar and spelling errors? Are there people complaining in their Facebook feed? Check Twitter and MySpace for complaints too. Google the name of the artist and words like ‘scam’ or ‘commission’. Ask if they’re delivering any work at the Con. See if you can speak to some of their customers.

Remember there are no returns. The one-of-a-kind light saber, the prop from your favorite movie, and the amazing software package to use on your author website all have the same restriction: once you’ve bought them you can’t return them. Protect yourself by doing research, is this item truly one-of-a-kind or are there fifty of them on eBay? Take a close look at what you’re about to buy, does it seem sturdy? I’d walk away from any sale where I couldn’t touch the item before I purchase. For software and collectibles, check to see that the box is truly sealed, and not just resealed with glue after having been opened. The web is your friend again, google to see that you’re getting all the parts you should be getting. If it’s software, check the web for reviews. In general, don’t spend so much that you’ll be crushed if something falls apart before you get it home.

Don’t be pressured. It’s easy to believe that a special show sale is the only thing that will ever make a book editing service affordable to you, or that if you walk away from a set of stormtrooper armor someone else will snatch it up. However, it’s just as possible that you don’t need that editing service and the armor will sit until Monday morning when you’re sure about it. Most of us don’t make our best decisions under pressure. Watch out for used car salesman techniques like failing to give a firm price, being unwilling to put a price in writing, blaming someone else for a price or policy, or pushing you off from one salesman to another. If you know you’re bad at this, enlist a friend or a stranger for help. It’s easy to say to someone “what do you think?” and break the salesman’s strangle hold on the conversation. Remember, you can always walk away.

Know your limits. If you’re arriving at a convention with twenty dollars in food money, don’t seat yourself in the most expensive restaurant in the hotel. If you can’t resist shiny new corsets (that’d be me) don’t stop at the corset booths without someone to bail you out. If you have a set budget for purchases, don’t take more than that amount of money on to the trade floor. If your credit cards are maxed out don’t carry them in your pocket, stash them in your  hotel room safe.

Don’t trust people just because they share your passion. Writers, Trekkies, and Steampunks can all be scam artists. The MMO player you’ve exchanged a few messages with here and there can hurt you just as much as a total stranger you meet in a bar. We want to believe that our fandom is filled with kind and giving people but that isn’t always true. Trust but verify. Be cautious, real fan clubs have letterhead, t-shirts, and a logo. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Above all, please remember that if you can’t trust someone with your wallet, don’t trust them with your body.

Have I missed any tips? Am I too gloom & doom? Am I just plain wrong? I can’t wait to hear about it in the comments. 😉