I started this blog in November of 2010, eager to share a thousand things with the world. I blogged without a schedule, telling myself I’d get a great post out each week. Some weeks were more of a struggle then others but I made my goal. My plan included at least one short story each month. Inspiration didn’t always come when I needed it but I wrote some stories I dearly love on this blog.
Then in 2012 my writing life took a hard sideways turn I hadn’t expected. Somehow my blog became the only writing I did for a year. I succeeded at blogging but failed at actually writing and editing, not to mention the business side of authorhood. In 2013, I decided it was time to focus on those things more. When I did (predictably) the blog suffered. My posts followed a haphazard schedule, coming in between giant writing jags that produced two competed manuscripts. One of those was the Mermaid and the Murders, which is now published, so while I regret that blog neglect, I don’t regret it too much.
Still I came out of 2013 well aware that I needed structure, something to keep me on track with the blog. I switched to blogging on the 1st and the 15th of each month. The hard deadline kept my blog going but I found that short story ideas melted away from me like a ghost in moonlight. My blog turned more toward writing and my experiences, places I went and things I did. It’s a change I’m comfortable with.
About a year ago now, I added monthly book reviews on the 20th of the month. Like my early blogging days that started out easily enough. I read about eight books a month, sometimes more, so I picked the best ones and dashed off a few excited sentences about the story.
But my reading habits have changed. I’m reading more samples and fewer complete novels. It takes a lot to wow me enough that I want to recommend a book to the world. So, from here on out, my reviews won’t come on any set schedule. When I’m wow’ed by a book I promise to share it, but the regular review posting on the 20th is over as of last month.
If I’m brutally honest, part of this blog reflection is because I’m in edits on the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. The working title is “Fire in Her Blood” and I’m enjoying polishing it for publication. I really love writing, crafting a story, researching a setting, and editing it until the manuscript shines. But while I’m happy to give up writing reviews on my blog for the chance to do more of that, at the same time I’m not willing to give up on my blog. It’s brought me too much joy to walk away.
I grew up hearing my father’s sailing stories of fierce mermaids who tore ships to pieces and drown sailors for fun. Between Dad’s stories and the mermaids in classic literature, I had pretty much all I needed to start the Monster Beach books with The Mermaid and the Murders. As I grow the series, I need new sea monsters, which meant a Research Road trip to the Georgia Aquarium.
I have two plot outlines sketched for alligator shifter novels, but neither of them include an albino ‘gator like the one who posed for me. I haven’t found any good alligator shifter lore, so I’d be creating something from scratch. I like the idea of a white alligator being more magical than the rest. They were certainly prettier than most of the gators I’ve seen in the wild.
Otters are one of my favorite creatures. I doubt they’ll make it into a book, but I couldn’t resist watching them for an hour or two. They’re tool users, and most aquariums challenge them to solve puzzles like how to break into a block of ice to get the shrimp froze inside.
Another personal favorite that I can’t find a way to fit in is the cuttlefish. These colorshifting Cephalopods look back at you with intelligence. Urban legends swear that you can mimic the movement of their tentacles to interact with them. Besides the great Cthulu, there isn’t a lot of lore surrounding these calm creatures which is odd when you consider that some of them are toxic enough to cause blindness or death when touched. They’d be a good character, but I’d have to think of something better than just “cuttlefish-shifter” to do with them.
Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.
This picture doesn’t do the size of the shark justice. At 18 feet long they’re the largest of all fishes. Their graceful glide filled me with awe, immediately reminding me of Dakuwaqa – the shark god of Fiji. Dakuwaqa can shift form between being fully human, half human/half shark, and a very large shark. Unlike the whale sharks I saw Dakuwaqa has massive jaws to devour anyone who harms his reef or his people. While I’d be uncomfortable putting a god in my story, a descendant of the shark god might slip into a romance. Perhaps in a story inspired by this picture:
When I made up the salt golem sea monster (an ocean dwelling salt vampire) for The Mermaid and the Murders, it felt like I had to do a lot of explaining. I worked hard to weave the explanations into dialog and story scenes. I’m hoping my next monster will be a bit more familiar. I want something easy to relate to but also a little scary. The aquarium gave me some good ideas, now it’s time for some book based research…and maybe a trip to the swamp.
The Author’s copies of The Mermaid and the Murders have arrived!
A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.
While the rest of the books won’t be shipping until June 10, I’m delighted to have these editions on my shelf. My mother claimed a copy, and some will be given away on Goodreads. One will always be on my shelf though, a wonderful reminder of the challenge I set for myself one snowy February. At the time, I wanted an excuse to daydream about my long-ago home of Key West. I wanted to walk the halls of the palatial home on Porpoise Point, where I’d watched dolphins from the private beach before going back to my job as a glorified baby sitter. I missed the heat, the smell of the ocean, and the strong Cuban coffee. I wanted to capture the fierceness of life on that island, the way women were as strong and sexy as the men and no one felt the need to fit in.
The book that came out of that wintry month wasn’t the one I expected to write. But this scene, probably my favorite in the whole book, is exactly what I wanted. I hope you all enjoy it (and the rest of the book too).
Even as I thought about finding something meaner, I shadowed the six-foot shark. Stalking it felt natural to me. I stayed behind my prey, waiting for it to be distracted. The shark sensed my presence and took off, swimming fast to deeper water. I chased it, my tail going faster. Soon we were side-by-side, coal black eyes staring at me as the beast turned to bite. I threw my shoulders back and sent my tail forward, wrapping around it like a lover. I squeezed and my scales released blood into the water with a thousand small cuts. The shark thrashed, fighting against what it must’ve known was coming.
I felt my teeth grow in my mouth, sharp fangs coming forward. When the shark came forward to bite me, I moved quickly and bit it first. My teeth sank into gills, the flesh rough like sand, the slits in the skin moving between my teeth. I kept biting, my tail pushing the life out of the beast.
Around us, other sharks gathered, large and small, brought by the smell of blood. I ignored them; focusing on the death I intended to deliver. The creature in front of me had seconds left but I knew it could still hurt me. Fighting off my hunger, I drew back, ducking around the mouth. My arm moved too slowly and I felt the intense pressure of its bite. Pounds of pressure started to come down, enough to crack a lobster’s shell, enough to break my bones. The pain left my vision red and my tail moved in deadly instinct.
A tight squeeze with a sideways motion, one I’d never made before, and half the shark fell away. Even in death, it was reluctant to let go of my arm.
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.
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.
It’s common for authors to think of blogs as “building a brand”. It’s a phrase used in many blogging classes and conference sessions. The theory goes that while authors once sold stories, back in the olden days of the 1990s, now they sell themselves, their brand as an author.
If I followed this notion, my blog would be a collection of posts that sold you what was unique about me, and how that point of view informed my writing. I’ve been advised by great agents and wonderful authors to consider things like: my disability, my take on feminism in fiction, and/or my pet rabbit.
The rabbit thing actually works.
The rest, I’m not so sure. I want my stories to be read. I can’t deny that, but I want them to be read because they’re good, because they resonate with people, or because they provide a glimpse into a world that makes readers happy. Books should be a mirror, showing you the best person you can be, or a window into another world. The interaction between a reader and a book may start with the author’s vision, but it shouldn’t end there.
Not long after Under a Blood Moon was published a reader asked how I would feel if someone thought Mallory was black. I’d be delighted. If a black reader identified with my character enough to think she wore the same skin color as they did, well, I’d count that as a win.
Because the book isn’t about me, and when someone reads it I don’t want to get in their way. I want the story to speak to them.
This blog was due to be posted on 3/15. It wasn’t. I was editing, and working on a manuscript submission. Thus I’m writing this on 3/28 and back dating it, which is cheating but, hopefully, the forgivable kind. I don’t want to cheat in my writing, but when it comes to my brand, I’m a little less concerned. My stories get first priority. Writing them to be the best they can be, polishing them, and making them immersive and real enough that people forget about me when they read are my goals. You might even say, that’s my brand.
A combination of holiday doldrums, editing stress, and my first cable subscription in years led me to re-new my acquaintance with stories I hadn’t watched in a few years. In between editing and unpacking boxes I plopped down on the couch to revisit old favorites, shows I once stopped everything to watch.
But a funny thing happened while I was away: the stories changed. Characters I loved started behaving in unbelievably strange ways. I expected things to get back to normal after an hour or two, but slowly I realized this was normal now. Strong female characters became emotionally crippled shells; decisive heroes became hesitant. Two shows embraced the same bizarre story-line where a villain raped the hero only to become pregnant and avoid all punishment.
I can imagine how it happened – in some boring conference room writers surrounded a table, fiddling with pens and rapidly cooling coffee. One of them looks up with excitement to exclaim ‘I’ve got it!’ and the world of characters and circumstance I found so watchable becomes a mess, the story so far away from what it had been that I don’t want to take part any more.
How far back would I have to go to fix the problem? How many paragraphs of dialog, how many scenes? I could change something subtle or maybe it needed a drastic push like cutting out a character completely or moving them all to someplace new. Picking a new path isn’t easy. Every decision I don’t like, every plot point that makes me cringe, is someone else’s favorite. From where I sit choices are regrets but to another person they’re a triumph, a story I should love.
It’s hard to know which perspective is right because often the out of control past writer is yourself. Great choices sour in the light of reality, things spiral out of control. You find yourself someplace you never expected to be or suddenly dealing with circumstances you never thought could happen. Don’t waste time lamenting how it should have gone. Move forward, try something new, don’t spend energy on the future that wasn’t. Work to make the story better and make a new ending for yourself.
Sometimes stories go the wrong way. It’s up to us to rewrite them. The story doesn’t have to be about your biggest mistake, it can be about your biggest victory – the way you turned a mistake into the best decision in your life.
When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.
That’s the best piece of advice I got in college. It came from my favorite professor, a man who happily called himself a wizened old gnome. He did research in Chernobyl half the year and spent the rest of the time relaxing. To a tiny cult-like group of followers he was everything, to the other students he was a weird prof to be avoided.
This post is a day late, and my Dec 20th post may also be late. I’ve made some decisions lately – large, personal life decisions – that I’m not sure about. Sometimes it takes years to see you made a mistake or months to congratulate yourself for having avoided disaster. In writing I deal with heavy topics, life and death situations, dangerous choices, and loaded guns. In real life the distinctions between a great decision and one that leaves you filled with regret are much more subtle. I’m trying to see that subtle difference, and it’s taking a lot of my time.
In the middle of all that, my editing goes on and, as usual, takes more effort than creating a wildly rough first draft of a story. I always miss writing when I’m editing, but I also see the way it makes my work better. So while I don’t always know where I’m going, I can see progress as I move down the road. For that I am grateful.
I am deeply sorry to for the delays in blogging, reading, and writing new drafts. I promise to get back on schedule soon.
Many people will tell you how to win at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). They’ll quote best practices and articles, talking about support networks and plotting. All of that is very good advice. But I’m here to tell you that even if you don’t follow any of it, you can still ‘win’ at NaNoWriMo. And by winning I mean end up with a book contract.
The end of 2013 was a hard time for me. My father died, my mother had serious health issues, I was hospitalized, and my heater broke in the middle of a snowstorm. The NaNoWriMo deadline had long since passed, but I realized if I didn’t challenge myself to get writing my creativity would drown under all the stress. I needed a challenge, even though the next NaNoWriMo was months away.
Anti-Rule #1: NaNoWriMo happens when you make it.
If November is a bad time for you, start your novel today or any day. If you like the discussion boards and support of a writing team NaNoWriMo Camp starts in June and August. It brings the same support and fun as NaNoWriMo in November with none of the holiday obligations pressing down on you. A lot of the teachers in my life prefer NaNoWriMo Camp in June when school is out for the summer. I planned to start my personal NaNoWriMo challenge on 2/1/2014, but got excited and started writing on January 27.
Anti-Rule #2: You can start with something you’ve already worked on
After my life stabilized and the heat came back on, I realized I hadn’t written, really written, in months. Starting a new story felt too overwhelming so I grabbed a six-thousand word opening inspired by this image:
Photo from EPBOT.com one of the coolest blogs I know.
The story of a teenage mermaid fighting with her mother while tracking down a serial killer took off in my imagination. I saw the piece not just as a YA mystery, but as a platform for talking about feminine power. I repeatedly watched the mermaid scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides:
The mermaids there were exactly what I wanted – desirable, otherworldly, and deadly. Young women are often admonished against expressing their sexuality and told “good girls don’t do that sort of thing”. I wanted a character who struggled with her own powerful sexuality, who wanted to fit in but was constantly swayed by strong emotions the world didn’t expect her to have.
Her name is Danika. Her friends called her Danny, and for my private NaNoWriMo I thought about her every day. I challenged myself to two thousand words a day for each of February’s twenty-eight days.
Anti-rule #3 Finish your novel when it’s done.
I kept writing through March and into the first weeks of April. (Danny first appeared on the blog in April.) It turned out that I wanted to write more than the NaNoWriMo prescribed 50K words. I wrote about Key West disguised as Danny’s beach-side town Playa Linda. My Aunt’s house on Stock Island became Danny’s house. My favorite high school books became her favorites. I filled that manuscript with a thousand sunny details of life in a tropical town while the cold winter months passed away.
Anti-rule #4 Edit whenever you want!
NaNoWriMo focuses on getting the words on the page, so the rules tell you not to edit as you go. That means leaving something in place that doesn’t work and trying to write around that mistake. For me, it became too confusing to write chapter 10 based on what I wanted chapter 8 to be instead of what it was. I’d rather go back and rename a character than keep a list of things to correct when I’m done. I enjoy re-reading my work on Sunday night, planning out what scenes I’ll write for the week and making little changes. I don’t want to give up that ritual.
Anti-rule #5 Don’t stop when the manuscript is finished
People joke that NaNoWriMo should be followed by National Novel Editing Month, and I agree. When I finished the Mermaid manuscript I let it rest for a month before doing a first edit. Then it was sent it for a beta read. That caused another round of edits, which were followed by two rounds of paid edits, one with a college student for YA voice and one with the amazing editors at Quail School Media. Finally it felt polished enough to send out to editors.
Bonus Conflicting Anti-rules –
Don’t leave your manuscript in a box.
Start something else!
While the editors were reading The Mermaid and the Murders (the current working title) I started another manuscript. More than a year after my personal NaNoWriMo finished, the Mermaid and the Murders was out on submission and I did my best to forget about it.
Months passed and I never managed to put the story out of my mind. So this November, I threw in my hat for the real NaNoWriMo focusing on a a cozy mystery about a group of quilters who dabble in magic spells on the side. As my story reached 10,000 words, I got news that meant I would need to bend those NaNoWriMo rules again.
My mermaid book, that rule-breaking not-really- NaNoWriMo manuscript got a contract. Right in the middle of the real NaNoWriMo I recieved my editorial letter. I’m excited to dive back into the world of mermaids and I’m happy that my (personal, not at the right time) NaNoWriMo was a success. If you’re participating right now, I hope you succeed. If you’re not participating, remember that any month can be NaNoWriMo or, if you don’t write, any month can be the one you accomplish your goal.
Happy Pagan New Year! Among Wiccans and Pagans the year ends at Harvest (Samhain) and enters a period of rest and restoration. The dark winter months are for sleeping, getting stronger, and boosting the ties between family and friends.
I’m not completely Pagan. I grew up mixed. Dad told stories from every Pagan God he knew, while Mom dutifully took us to an Irish Catholic Church each Sunday. Neither religion stuck very hard, but Halloween-time always feels like a giant end-of-the-year bash. That’s why my blog gets a new look each November – the New Year means a new format, new colors. And, of course, I make a few resolutions:
Edit less, write more
Last year I published my first novel. I never expected there to be so much editing. Rounds and rounds of edits, each perfecting the story just a tiny bit more. Editing is largely a process of subtracting for me, taking away overused words (apparently I’m addicted to ‘just’) and removing stray ideas that don’t really contribute to the plot. I tend to think of editing as the opposite of writing, an act of ‘uncreating’. It makes my work better so I would never want to stop editing all together, but once you start looking for things to get rid of you find more and more of them. Last year was the first year since I began writing in 2006 that I didn’t complete a new manuscript. I edited several. This year I’m looking to balance my editing with creating.
My blog schedule evolved from ‘when I think of things’ to ‘worry about it twice a month, get it done whenever’ to the lovely 1st and 15th schedule I put in place in 2014. I don’t always hit the exact date (spoiler alert: I’m writing this on the 2nd), but having a fixed time on the calendar helps me plan for better posts. I toyed with the idea of going to a 1st, 10th, and 20th schedule, but I don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. Instead, I’m going to add a third blog post around the 20th of the month.
Share what I read
That new monthly blog post will be about books. I read three books a week, but I tend to keep it to myself. Selfishly, I hope sharing what I read will bring me more recommendations and help me find new authors to love. Authors are warned never to give a bad review and be cautious about saying anything about anyone in the industry, so you’ll only hear about the books I like.
Play with new ideas more
Like the Queen of Wonderland sometimes I believe six impossible things before breakfast. A jumble of characters, scenes, and ideas rattles around my head but I stop them from getting out by worrying about the details. Will the story be interesting enough? What is the heroine going to do with her time? Where’s the bad guy? I’ve long lamented the 20,000 word mark, where good stories seem to die. All those 20,000 word pieces feel like a thing left unfinished, a black mark on my to-do list that can never be crossed off. This year I want to look at those pieces differently. I want to see them as an exploration, one that doesn’t have to result in 90,000 polished, published words. I write in two lengths: 600 word blog posts and 100,000 word novels. (The first draft of the sequel to Under a Blood Moon came in at 150,000 words.) I don’t know when writing became a one-or-the-other thing for me, and I don’t like it. I’m giving myself permission to write shorter, write weirder, write sweeter, etc. etc. etc. Play with the ideas and see where they go, instead of locking them away because they might not work.
I have a lot of great plans for the next year. I’ve started a new contract with Wild Rose Press (more on that when it’s official) and there’s a long list of fun writing projects that need attention. A second not-much-shorter list of life projects needs attention too. As we say goodbye to the bright autumn sunlight and prepare for the long, dark days of winter I’m excited about the things ahead. I hope you are too. From my hearth to yours, best wishes and bright blessings for the New Year.
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. Printed 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.