08/1/17

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.

 

07/15/17

My Vampires are Cursed

I started writing the Death Witch books just weeks after a brain hemorrhage, when I had no idea if I would survive to turn thirty. I’m not embarrassed to admit I choose a vampire for a hero because of the very attractive idea of immortality. As I struggled to recovery, I knew vampirism (eternal life with eternal youth? Never getting sick? Sign me up!) wasn’t much of a ‘curse’ anymore.

Because while I can appreciate the tension in knowing everyone around you will grow old and die while you stay young, it never felt like a terrible problem to have for me. How could I make the ‘curse of a vampire’ into something more than the “all my friends are dead” trope? How could I make a vampire, creatures long associated with sex and sensuality, into something deeper?

I decided in my world, the curse wasn’t eternal life with eternal youth, but an inability to change as society around you does. My vampires don’t age physically, but they also struggle to change their morals and beliefs. While they can come to accept changes in technology, the values and beliefs they held as mortals stick, even when everyone else has moved on. They may be pretty and powerful, but the vampires always end up as the odd one out – the person who doesn’t quite fit in, who sees the world as generally wrong.

For Jakob, an illiterate peasant from the late 1300s, anything other than the truths his church taught him seemed shocking. When Mallory meets him he’s over six-hundred years old but he hasn’t shifted his basic life views: a good man strives to protect his community from outsiders and the immoral. The point of a relationship is to one day marry and have children. As someone who lost family in two great famines, Jakob will always believe the greatest luxury a man can have is abundant food and exotic fruits. It’s taken him years to learn how to read, but he’s not sure reading for pleasure isn’t a sinful indulgence.

Meanwhile, Mark, raised in the courts of Elizabeth I of England, is used to have plenty to eat, plenty of amusements, and the constant threat of political destruction. Mark remains suspicious and distrustful, even four hundred years after he loses all his political power. Mark becomes a vampire to avenge his family, who were slaughtered by werewolves. No longer Prince Woldemar Anton Ludwig Hohenzollern, Mark leaves behind his name and his position, but can’t shake the ideas that came with it: life is a series of manipulations, love isn’t an option for him, and a stray word can destroy lives.

Then there’s Amadeus, who joined the story in the last book, Fire in Her Blood. As I finish editing the third Death Witch book and start plotting out the fourth, he’s the character I’m really sinking my teeth into. Both Jakob and Mark are generally good people. Jakob is overly religious, his flaws fall along those lines – he’s overly protective, conservative, and uncomfortable with a lot of modern values. Mark is impolite, rudely pushing people away because he thinks he’ll be rejected (after all he has nothing to offer politically, so why would anyone want him?).

But Amadeus…He’s white trash from a romanticized era. He grew up poor in the antebellum south, a musician struggling to make ends meet. Amadeus is turned when he’s just sixteen years old, with all of the head-strong nature of a sixteen-year-old and all of the emotional turmoil of a civil war solider. He sees people as tools to help him achieve his goals. His maker taught him to exploit witches most of all, and he quickly learned to use his good looks to get women to do things for him. He could learn to be better, but he doesn’t have a reason too. The way things are going for him in this next book, he might not live long enough.

Hopefully, all of them will learn to overcome the prejudices and false beliefs they held as humans. Their curse makes it hard to free themselves from outdated ideas, but even if you can’t stop thinking something, you recognize it’s wrong and to minimize its influence. Anyone can overcome an ingrained idea if they work hard enough.

06/15/17

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.

03/1/17

Timelines and the Next Mallory Story

Fire in Her Blood released on February 15. While I’m spending a lot of time obsessively clicking on Amazon to see if it gets any reviews, I’m also at work on the next book. I’m afraid written myself into a bit of pickle.

Fire in Her Blood was meant to have a subplot with Indigo, my favorite werejaguar. Werejaguars came into my life through stories my father gathered in his travels in Central America (Mesoamerica). The powerful, protective jaguar-spirit wove itself into Indigo’s appearance in Under a Blood Moon. When Indigo saves the day and provides a bit of light hearted fun, I’m recreating the balance of scary, blood thirsty animal, and lovable, caring cat god. I wanted to explore more about Indigo, working the stories I knew into his (only hinted at) complicated, dark history.

The jaguar cards from Dad’s tarot card set.

Which is how I ended up with way too many words in Fire in Her Blood. Ultimately, I decided to focus on the serial arsonist and revealing more about how vampire culture worked. When I edited Indigo out I knew his story had to go into another book. But at that point, the draft of the book that should have the third in the Death Witch series was already finished. And edited. Twice.

Which left me written into a corner.

The would-be-book-three starts during a rare February snow storm in Baton Rouge. Fire in Her Blood ends on Halloween. Unless this new Indigo-focused book ended up a Christmas story there wasn’t any room in the timeline for it.

I mean, I could have moved would-be-book-three to the next year, and put Indigo’s story in the center of the second year? But then I would need to add more books to explain what Mallory did with her year. And then there’s Amadeus…

When the spotlight wasn’t on Indigo, Amadeus really shined. His cocksure attitude and the way he enjoyed shocking everyone by proudly being a vampire sex worker created some of my favorite scenes. The dynamic between Mallory and Amadeus was fun, but the tension between him and Jakob was priceless. Would-be-book-three gave Amadeus a new role, forcing both of those relationships to grow.

I don’t want to wait to explore those relationships.

Which leads me back to Indigo’s story. It will now be book three. The would-be-book-three will need to be re-written a bit. The snow storm can’t be moved, so Indigo’s story is going to fit into a tight timeline from mid-November until early January. Amadeus is going to be forced into a supporting role somehow (he’s a difficult character to rein in). In his place are a collection of new characters and mythological creatures.

Aside from Anubis (Egyptian god of the afterlife) and a very scary wraith, Laumės (woodland spirits from Lithuanian mythology) make an appearance in the SIU squad room. They traditionally have a bad relationship with men so Mallory’s usual partner, Danny, can’t work the case. That gives me a chance to add a very tough female cop to the SIU, Kaniesha King. She’s used to working with the Muslim communities of Detroit, wears her hair natural, and takes no shit. You can see reference photos for her and most of the characters on the Pinterest board for this book: https://www.pinterest.com/GravesRachel/death-witch-book-3/

You’ll also find the Ursuline nun (a vampire from the 1600s), Charlotte (the girl the Laumės discover), and the biker bar from Fire in Her Blood (it’s quickly becoming my favorite place to leave a body). I’m having a lot of fun writing and adding reference photos as I go. I know the path to publication is long, but if I’m lucky you’ll be able to read this one by the end of the year.

That is assuming, of course, that I can come up with a title.

12/1/16

New Cover Art for Under a Blood Moon

Cover art is an interesting puzzle. Authors don’t have creative control over their cover art. Before the artist begins we’re asked to supply a few details about what we had in mind, remembering that the details may be ignored completely. If we’re consulted, it’s usually after the cover is created.

There are a few cover art rules about what sells and what doesn’t. You may have never noticed it, but there aren’t very many romance covers featuring men with hairy chests. Similarly, the YA book world seems obsessed with white girls with long, blond hair.

When I worked on my debut cover art, I was more than a little clueless. It was super important to me that the girl on the cover look exactly like the character. Her weight, body shape, hair color, all of it had to be an exact match. When I couldn’t get the match I removed the girl, which explains why I ended up with a spooky, atmospheric landscape cover. It didn’t do a very good job of conveying a sense of my story.

Luckily, when it came time to pick cover art for the sequel, Fire in Her Blood, my publisher agreed to give me another chance. Thus, I can reveal the much improved, amazing cover for Under a Blood Moon:

underabloodmoon_w9453_750

The Mallory on the cover is almost exactly as I describe Mallory in the book. Her magic, which shows as lightening, is the perfect highlight. And the moon? The huge blood moon, which inspires a werewolf killing spree in the book, got to stick around. I’m delighted with it!

It feels great to know that both of the books will share a look. I can’t wait to see them on my bookshelf together.

 

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11/15/16

Fire in Her Blood Cover Art!

I turned in my final edits on Fire in Her Blood at the beginning of the month and received in return a wonderful email with my cover art. Author wisdom tells you not to release your cover art until you have buy links and a publish date. I usually try to follow that advice, but I’m too in love this time. I mean, come on, just look at the gorgeous cover:

The cover shows a young woman standing in the center of a city. She's surrounded by flames as everything burns.

The perfect cover for my story about arson and fire witches. (Click to enlarge)

Things I love about this book:

  • It’s got a coming out story, where sharing the news is mixed with witchcraft.
  • Thanks to a fun-to-write Samhain party at the end of the book, I got to show the diverse backgrounds of Mallory’s friends and fellow witches. That means Jew-witches and Latinas, but also a chance to mention Poi.
  • The story includes a supernatural brothel filled with sexy mythological creatures, which means I got to show how sex workers live in Mallory’s world. (Hint: better than in our world.)
  • A short subplot contains my favorite friendly ghost, Marcus. The ghost stories Mallory deals with every few days are a joy to write.
  • I got to drop lots of little hints about the next book. (The draft is in the very early stages.)

Here’s the back-cover description:

Death witch and Detective Mallory Mors arrives at the scene of an out-of-control arson called by a victim who desperately wants to die. Using her powers, Mallory battles the strongest fire witch in town to help the woman cross over. When she’s forced to work with the angry fire witch, she discovers their lives are linked in complicated ways. As all the other fire witches in the city mysteriously lose their powers, the heat is on to solve the case. Saddled with a vampire assault at the local supernatural brothel, a missing person who doesn’t want to be found, and a mess of vampire politics, Mallory struggles to put together the pieces before the city burns.

As soon as I have that precious pre-order link I’ll update this page, and also add a general page to my website.

Oh, and my inbox got a bit more good news: The Mermaid and the Murders  ­­was recently named one of  “5 Amazing Underrated Books”.   I’m working on the sequel now, the Siren’s Stalker, and the encouragement of a good review helps. Actually I’m working on the next in the Death Witch series (no name yet), the Siren’s Stalker, and developing the materials to submit a third manuscript. Lots to do, but cover art like this makes it all worth while.

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04/1/16

Editing myself out

Editing a novel involves a lot of back and forth with your editor. While you may burn the midnight oil to ensure that your email is waiting promptly when she gets into work it turns out that valiant lady of letters is working with other authors. Not only is she working with them, but sometimes she puts them before you.

Shocking.

Thankfully, a career as an author requires you to have multiple irons in the fire, or manuscripts on your desk as it might be. While I was waiting for the next round of edits for the Mermaid and the Murders, I was also editing Fire in Her Blood, the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. Flipping back and forth between the two books made me realize that editing is a bit like traveling back in time to talk to the person I used to be.

Manuscripts, like wine, must age before they can become books. Fire in Her Blood was drafted back in 2009. That was the year my beloved mother-in-law ended her twenty-eight year battle breast cancer. The manuscript was in its first revisions a year later when I buried my best girlfriend after a drunk driver took her life. It’s probably not surprising that the first draft was fairly obsessed with religion. Coming in at just over 160K words, in between tracking a serial arsonist my character visits a number of churches, arranges for her vampire boyfriend to attend a Catholic mass, argues with another cop about the difference between conservative and regular Southern Baptist congregations, and debates with her own partner about the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. She also ends up at a pair of pagan churches, one for the Fire Goddess, and one for the Air God.

None of the scenes were bad, but from a distance of seven years it’s clear that my own struggle with faith bleed out on to the page. I removed most of the religious overtones as I edited, taking the manuscript down to a much more reasonable 110K words. Then it went back to my editor, in hopes that she’ll like it enough to champion it for publication.

Meanwhile, she returned The Mermaid and the Murders back to me. Reading her notes I realized when I wrote it the balance of a personal desires over family needs was at the forefront of my mind. Danika, the mermaid of the title, wants to live her own life, away from her pod. It’s a choice her mother doesn’t agree with and they fight constantly. Through the course of the story Danika comes to realize that constantly having the same fight isn’t working. Instead she stands up for herself, weathers the consequences, and when the battle is over, finds peace with her choice. I’m not sure I’ve gotten to that part, but I know I sympathize with the way she feels pulled in both directions.

Early on in my career, I attended a great lecture at the RWA national conference. An award winning author told us all that putting your own emotions on the page gave the story depth and a realism that couldn’t be duplicated any other way. That’s a great idea, but I want to be sure I’m telling my characters’ story and not my own. I’m grateful to my editor for helping me pull back and lend my own experiences without over shadowing the story.

09/15/15

Things We Keep — Under a Blood Moon First to Final

How important is preserving the past? And which version of the past do we keep?

When the paperback copies of Under a Blood Moon arrived I quickly snapped a photo of one on top of the original draft. Under a Blood moon first draft to final copyPrinted in March 2007 that draft only roughly matches the story in the finished novel. I intended to shred it the next day, not out of anger or malice, but because I didn’t need it any more. I mused about leaving the past to the past, and focusing on the future. But then I hesitated.

A story will change with the telling, altered as people apply their own point of view. It changes more when the author writes a sequel or explains things in other works. One of my favorite series began with the heroine being saved from a pair of attackers by the (eventual) hero. In the first book she was alone and desperate. Later in the series we learn another person was watching the shadows. By the end of the series some seven people were there and only the hero moved to help. Critics were quick to point out the inconsistency, but does it really matter?

I’m editing the second Mallory novel now. The third is ‘proofing’ and my mind is chewing on what will happen in the fourth. I’m tempted to re-read every word I’ve written, from beginning to end, before I start on that fourth story. It would give me a more consistent, more ‘correct’ version of the story but I want to write what’s in my mind now rather than trying to recapture what I felt then.

One of my first readers of Under a Blood Moon is a friend who I met at my day job. After reading the book she asked me an interesting question – would it bother me if Mallory was Black? There’s nothing in the text that specifically makes her White, and a reader might imagine her as a Black. I told her it wouldn’t almost instantly, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I want readers to imagine Mallory as Black, Latina, Asian, or whatever she looks like inside their mind. I want them to read my story and make my characters real.

Which is why I finally shredded those first manuscripts. A story isn’t just words on a page, but an evolving idea. I don’t want to look back at what I might have meant but instead move forward toward what my stories can become. I want that more than I want to remember what the story once was. Holding on to the past leaves your hands too full to reach for the good things to come.

09/1/15

DragonCon 2015

Preparations for my first DragonCon as a published author are coming to close this week, and I couldn’t be more excited. One of the largest conventions, DragonCon appeals to my many disparate fandoms. It’s the one time of year where I talk with astronauts, listen to editors and agents, and buy a drink for my on screen heroes. I’m especially excited for this year’s parade, which feature Nichelle Nichols as Grand Marshal. You might remember her as half of the first interracial kiss on television, which occurred during an episode of Star Trek (the original series) where she played Nyota Uhura.

My Con-trouage usually includes my two best friends, but neither of them can make it this year. While I’ll still be surrounded by 60,000 of my closest geek friends it feels odd to know I’ll be walking the Con floor alone. Unfortunately, I was late to the sign up so I won’t be speaking at any panels, but I’ll be attending most of what the Urban Fantasy track offers. If you need a coupon, want a book signed, or need a hug, look for me there.

My volunteer shifts at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America table (Hyatt, Exhibition Level) are set for Friday from 1:00pm-3:00pm and Sunday from 3:00pm-5:00pm. My nifty cover flat coupons (good for 25% off Under a Blood Moon) will be on the table throughout the Con.

On Saturday night I’m looking forward to the Georgia Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of famous Science Fiction and Fantasy music. It wouldn’t be DragonCon without the Rocky Horror Picture Show and glamorous geek burlesque but it’s nice to have some fine arts entertainment as well.

I’ll be running the Geek Girls Run DragonCon Fun Run 5K event on Friday morning. If you’re interested, please join us! The run isn’t limited to women or girls, and there’s a place for pace. Many of the attendees will be walking or walk/running. Thankfully there isn’t much going on early on Friday, so we’ll have time afterward for an awesome brunch.

Except for some very subtle nods to my favorite fandoms, I’ve decided not to costume this year. I will be spending copious amounts of time in the dealers room and at the art show. I harbor fantasies of finding the perfect cover artists for all my books in the 200 artists who are exhibiting. Of course, I’d also like to find the perfect corset, the perfect dessert, and the perfect spot to watch the parade. It could happen. Actually you never know what could happen at DragonCon, that’s the best part.

08/1/15

Social Media and Authoring

With less than three weeks to go until the release of Under A Blood Moon, I’m exploring the world of authorhood and learning about things I never knew existed. In the last month I’ve added an Amazon Author Page and a Goodreads Author page to my social media outlets. Both are meant to take information from other social media spots. It creates an odd echo effect – if I post about this blog on twitter, it will be copied to Facebook, and to the author pages, where my blog will appear next to the tweet about the blog post without any intervention from me.

The echo keeps resounding, making me feel like all I talk about is my upcoming book. I’m very excited about it, but also frustrated with the idea of what to do next. The sequel to Under a Blood Moon is written, but it came out at 132,000 words. Wild Rose Press, my publisher, prefers books remain under 100,000 words. I’ve had the manuscript (working title, Death Witch: Fire and Flame) beta-read, edited, and copy edited. The word count limit means there’s more to do, but, if I’m honest, I’m not sure where to start.

Really, though, not knowing where to start comes from not wanting to start. It’s shocking to admit but I don’t enjoy editing. I enjoy writing. I’m a ‘pantser’ meaning I write without an outline, plotting by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along. That’s the part I love. The feeling of figuring out what comes next and scribbling down notes about things that need to change while I shower or drive. I enjoy seeing the story build itself in my head, then watching it spool out in words and lines. I write out of order, exciting and interesting scenes go first, then I force myself to fill in the part in between, hoping my discipline is stronger than my craving for the next exciting plot twist

There are no plot twists in editing. No exciting scenes in ordering promotional material or designing a blog campaign. Writing an artist to request advertisement graphics and searching out places to post those advertisements doesn’t hold the same thrill as hunting down facts or exploring motivations.

So I find myself once again in a place where conventional wisdom about writing and what I want to do are directly in conflict. Conventional wisdom says I should be networking, arranging a blog tour, placing advertisements, running giveaways, and promoting the hell out of my debut novel. Instead, I want to write the next book, and the book after that, and the one after that. I’ve got two or three ideas I need to get back to, along with something new and different itching at the back of my brain.

My author-side wants to write, desperately needs to get lost in a story. The business-side sees the value in all of those things I ought to be doing, and is scared of not doing them. I’m not sure which side I’ll listen to yet.