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.

Writing Tools: Microsoft Word’s Navigation pane

I’m working furiously on a new story. It’s something I’ve been half-writing in my head for about a year and a half now. That means I have a lot of scenes written but not a clear plot outline. I’m a dedicated pants’er -I write by the set of my pants – so not knowing what happens next isn’t a big problem. Realizing I hinted at a scene in another scene or needed to reference something earlier is.

The Navigation pane in MS Word has made drafting my story so much easier. Each ‘scene’ in the story gets a title, which I apply the style “Heading 1” to. Every time I switch the Point-of-View in I add a second title, this time in the style of “Heading 2”. That way, when I view the Navigation pane my scenes and the related scenes are neatly nested together.

But the magic happens when I realize the Psychic Reading scene needs to come before they met the vampires. You can click and drag on the “Heading 1” styles in the Navigation pane to move all of the words associated with that heading. Suddenly moving several pages of story so they investigate the crime before they find the corrupt psychic takes two clicks. And because Word does the moving for me, I don’t have to worry about leaving a poor orphaned sentence behind.

If you’re writing something – a report, a thesis, or the next great novel – check out the Navigation Pane. It really makes re-organizing sections a breeze.

 

New Chaotic Update Schedule

You may have noticed that my blog took a temporary hiatus with no notice for the last few weeks. It’s become something of an internet tradition for bloggers to put a post bemoaning their lack of posting and promising to do better, only to fail at regularly updating their content again. I’m not going to do that.

Instead I want to talk about balance, specifically the balance between my writing life and my day-to-day life. Less than 3% of writers can support themselves based on their writing income alone. Very, very few of us don’t have day job. In most cases, where it seems like a writer is totally self-supporting, they’re actually working an ‘invisible’ day job, like being a stay-at-home spouse, or they’ve retired from their day job. Still others are supported by someone, a partner who brings home a steady income and provides health insurance.

For the rest of writers like me, there’s a nine-to-five daily grind kind of job. I’m lucky because my is fulfilling (most days), generously salaried, and provides very good health insurance. It’s very far from perfect. I’m obligated to never mention it in relation to my writing, a fact reiterated in the ten page social media policy and ethics statements I re-sign every year and again with every contracted book. Then there’s the busy, stressful times…

Every job has them, and mine has been in the middle of the busiest point in the last five years. Things started to get bad last August, as I was in the final edits for Blood, Dirt, and Lies. The busy-ness ramped up around the holidays, hitting peak crazy in January with 12 hour days. It’s hard to summon the energy to keep up with both the work of writing (promoting, editing, querying, networking) and the creative side (actually building worlds with words).

And so my blog suffered. But after talking with other writers and industry professionals, I’ve found that the schedule I strived for (two to three regular updates a month, on at last the 1st and the 15th) is perhaps not as important. For 2018, I’m going to be trying something new – shorter blog posts, more photos to show you what I’m doing, and (most importantly) chaotic updating.

I wish I could give you every word as I write it, but books need to age, be edited, and polished. I’ve written 17K words on an exciting new project this week. I have 20K words on the next Mallory novel and 14K on the next mermaid book. They won’t be ready for me to share with you for a while, maybe even a year or two. But snapshots of my life and a few sentences here and there can go up on the blog without much trouble. Hopefully, you’ll find them just as good, maybe even better, then my usual posts.

 

 

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.

True Author Confessions

I’d like to confess something an agent made me swear never to tell to anyone. Here goes:

I have finished thirteen manuscripts.

They’re manuscripts, not books or novels, because they aren’t published yet. I obviously love writing more than I enjoy any of the other steps it takes to make a manuscript into a novel.

That veteran agent with a great reputation told me having finished so many stories without selling them made me sound a little bit desperate. Sort of like a girl who’s been engaged nine times but never married. People would hear about my accomplishment and not see it as an accomplishment at all. Instead, they’d wonder if maybe I had problem, or even if I was a problem.

But I’m putting it out there, because there’s strength in doing what people tell you not to do. Also because I am, maybe wrongly, maybe stupidly, proud of having finished thirteen manuscripts in eleven years of writing.

That’s right, I started writing more than a decade ago. The first draft of a manuscript called only “Mallory” began on a notepad in a hotel room in July 2006. The story underwent a lot of revisions, shifting from third person point of view to first. Important parts of the world were dropped, like a law requiring all witches to register with the state, and great new parts added, like more diverse monsters from different cultures. I’ll never forget the moment I finished the story – it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2007.  I started the second Mallory story the same day, titling the file “Mallory Book 2” (creative titles are clearly not my strength). It eventually became Under a Blood Moon. The first story, which consumed my world from July 2006 to February 2007, has never even been submitted for publication.

Meanwhile, my fourth book will be published later this year. Blood, Dirt, and Lies is the third book in the Death Witch series, and in a way I’m only now getting to the good parts. I have a good start on the next book, and plot notes on books going into the future of the series. There’s even a good forty thousand words in a trio of manuscripts featuring the next generation of characters. (I can’t tell you who, because spoilers, but I love reading those stories.)

As long as I’m confessing, I should tell you my failing as an author is follow through. I don’t like editing, querying, submitting, or revising. I’d rather move on to the next story. Writing is the reward; the other steps are the hard work.

That becomes a problem, especially when I realize I’ve been writing for eleven years, but don’t have as many published books as folks who follow through. I look at people who are good at the editing, querying, pitching, submitting, and revising, only to turn emerald with envy. Authors who stick with one story until it’s published mystify me. How do they do it? Why can’t I?

I worry I don’t have enough to show for my work as an author. I worry after eleven years of working ten to twenty hours a week on my writing I should be making more money, publishing more books, and winning more prizes. I worry I’ll never have a book tour, an autograph signing, or a chance encounter with a fan. I worry I’m spending my energy in all the wrong places.

(Seems I worry a lot.)

But I don’t worry when I’m writing. Which is why, I confess, I’m going to go start (yet another) manuscript.

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.

 

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.

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.