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.

 

 

Who I write for

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

I’ve never met Jen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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-tithe and Giving Back

I’ve been expanding the list of podcasts I listen to, branching out into more science-based programs. I love  myths, stories, and legends, but lately the factual information side of my info-tainment has been lacking. Thus, I ended up listening to a Neil deGrasse Tyson podcast (Star Talk Radio) where they mentioned an idea I can’t stop thinking about.

The guests suggested each listener should ‘time-tithe’ each week. They focused on science, but I couldn’t help but think how well this would work for writing. Now, depending on your religious life, you might not be familiar with the Biblical concept of a tithe. The idea is to give 10% of your income, as both an obligation and as an offering of thanks. Many of my friends grew up tithing 10% of their babysitting earnings. But the podcast was talking not about writing a check, but about setting aside 10% of their time time where you work to make things better.

For at least the last five years, I’ve judged a writing contest each spring. This year was a bit of a trial with lost packages and some hard to score entries. I found myself considering if this should be my last year. My writing time is scarce these days and my word counts show it. The hardest connection for any writer is the one between their butt and the chair, and I often imagine that lightening my commitments will make me write more. The contest felt like a simple thing to take off my plate, something I could give up and not miss.

But it’s not that simple. Most importantly, judging is one of the few ways I have to give back to the writing community. I benefit from the many blogs, tutorials, and general help other writers offer. I was blessed to be briefly mentored by an amazing scifi author. I’ve gotten advice from other members of SFWA, and help from writers near and far. Giving back, helping the next writer down the line, is the right thing to do.

Selfishly though, judging improves my own writing, helping me decide what I do and don’t like in a story. This year’s entries taught me that I can tolerate violent speech and woman-hating behavior if there’s a good reason for it. If a ‘hero’ uses violent or sexist language because he was raised in a drug-running biker gang, and grows past that, I don’t mind. If he’s rich enough that he doesn’t have a 9-5 job, had a loving family to raise him, and still generally hates my gender? We’re done. That’s probably something I should have realized before, but it took judging to make me really look at how I feel about casual misogyny.

My time-tithe paid me back. It taught me something about the kind of writing I want to do. It got me thinking about the way I should develop the characters that I write. If there’s something hateful in them, then I need to make their reasons clear. If they’re the ‘hero’, then I need to give them a way to move past their prejudices and bad behavior.

That’s why going forward, I’ll be looking for more chances to volunteer and offering to beta read other authors work. It might be time for me to be more active in writing groups, or work with a critique partner. I haven’t worked out the details yet, so if you hear of something, drop me a note.

Crafting a Creature: Were-Alligators

I drafted my first treatment for a were-alligator novel in April of 2012. In March of 2016, a new idea came, this time for an alligator-shifter romance trilogy. I worked out the treatment in a rough sketch of the plot and characters, but also a few thousand words of scenes. Somewhere lost on my hard drive are the plots for books two and three. They aren’t the sort of thing I usually write (is alligator-shifter-romance/erotica-thriller even a category?), but they catch my eye from time to time.

When I headed to the Georgia aquarium looking for monsters for the next book in the Monster Beach series, the white skinned alligator reminded me of those stories. I’d love to introduce my alligator-shifters in that book – establishing them as a culture but giving myself more time. I need to find a reference for how alligator-shifters would work. I don’t want to create characters or start a new manuscript until I find a good myth to base the alligator culture on. I want a solid grounding with rules on how the alligators would work, like the way we all know werewolves shift on the full moon. Easy, right?

Except there are no alligator-shifters.

Not that I can find anyway. I’ve read a lot about sea monsters, swamp monsters, lake monsters, cyrptids, and urban legends, and I can’t find a single culture that has a monster that’s human by day and alligator by night/full moon/etc. There are a few modern paperback books out there, most of which make the were-alligators up as victims of a voodoo curse. With its connection to Louisiana, voodoo-magic seems like a logical choice, but it leaves the ‘how does that work?’ question unanswered. I’m not happy with that idea.

I’m also not comfortable appropriating culture. As an outsider to many cultures, I don’t know when a monster is actually a monster, or if they’re really a deity or guardian-style spirit. I don’t want to turn a sacred creature into something offensive. Taking traits from myths and legends is one thing, using only the name or a handful of characteristics sounds like the path to trouble to me. I’m not a superstitious person, but I was raised to be respectful of the Others.

A photo of Kappa illustration from the book Yokai Attack

The Kappa entry in Yokai Attack

Japanese Kappa
Kappa are one of the most popular Yokai (Japanese monsters/spirits/demons/ghosts). Turtle like with a long beak-style mouth (sounds like an alligator mouth to me), Kappa are known for challenging their victims to a wrestling match. Like an alligator’s famous ‘death roll’ Kappa drag their prey under the water, twisting and turning while they drown. Like selkies Kappa can remove their skin, and must do so in order to sleep. I can see a lot of fun writing coming from that, so while my favorite reference (Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide) shows me they don’t look like what I want, Kappa certainly act like. I’m not sure how I could justify a Japanese monster in the swamps of Florida though.

Bunyips
These Aboriginal-Australian  creatures first came to my attention in Temeraire series, where they are described as being somewhat dragon-like in appearance. A silhouette drawing supposedly dating back to the 1850s shows them as more of whale-like creature, except with the addition of two stubbing forearms (or maybe legs). A widely quoted newspaper article from 1845 describes the creatures as a half-horse, half-alligator, while another source says the head is more like a crocodile. Fascinating stuff, but there’s almost no trustworthy research out there, so until I can head to the Outback to track them down myself, I’ll have to pass.

Lizard men
More urban legend than monster, lizard men show up in modern culture the way Bigfoot does. The manlike cryptids have scaly skin and huge amounts of strength. They tend to live near swamps (I found a lot of stories set in South Carolina) and show up in the media as being responsible for damage to cars or houses. They look more like frog-men in Ohio, and reports from Canada are more like ‘the Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (Thetis Lake Monster) or have two tails (myths from the Queen Charlotte Islands). While I’m impressed that reptilian humanoids are still being reported, the stories are, once again, lacking.

None of them really work, so it’s up to me to create something new. My stories are set in South Florida, near the swamps inhabited by the Seminole Indians so I’ll use the Seminole language for their name: halputta-is-te (alligator people). I’m familiar with selkies and there’s a lot of source material about them, so I’ll likely take from those legends. There are also a lot of Kappa tales that overlap with selkie lore. That intersection will be where I ground my alligator-shifter stories as I start to write them.

Researching Were-Jaguars and Mayan Culture

April Fools’ Day seems like the perfect time to announce that everything I’ve told you about the third Death Witch book has been a lie. Or rather, a bad miscalculation. I had book three – working title “Blood, Dirt, and Lies” written and ready to go, when I was seized with the desire to make book three Indigo’s story. But the more I wrote, the more I realized my childhood stories weren’t enough. I needed to do more research.

At the same time, I went back and gave Blood, Dirt, and Lies a thorough re-read, only to discover it really worked as the third book. It flowed naturally from where the story ended in Fire in Her Blood. Adding a book in between would mean a tight timeline (the mystery could last a week or two but no more) and reworking a lot of relationship details for the supporting characters (Anna, Phoebe, Mark, E). Indigo’s story excites me, but it needs to wait until I have done the research to write it well.

So I sent the manuscript to my editor on Thursday, and was at the Michael C. Carlos Museum researching jaguars in Mayan culture on Saturday morning.

When the sun leaves our sky to visit the underworld, it does so in the form of jaguar. An incense burner depicting the Mayan Sun God as an old man during the day and a jaguar at night.

The bedtime story jaguars I grew up with came from tales set in Honduras. Before the Spanish invaded in the early 1500s, the area was Mayan. Most of the jaguar stories I know are from the Mayan culture, where shaman transformed themselves into jaguar spirits.

The change didn’t happen the way it does in my books – shaman didn’t shift completely into animal form, but instead took on traits of a jaguar to become an animal-self. One of the ways to tell if an artifact shows a shaman in jaguar form or a jaguar is to look for the tail. No tail means it’s a shaman, not a jaguar. I didn’t want to appropriate a culture I loved, so I made a point of using a more ‘Hollywood’ style transformation. Indigo isn’t a man using mystical knowledge to transform his spirit. He’s a shape-shifter who completely becomes a large cat but retains consciousness, thoughts, and sense of humor.

The jaguar on this vase as no tail, which means he’s actually a shaman’s animal-self. The vase was part of the collection at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

My first real life jaguar came when I helped build the Brevard County Zoo. The majestic cinnamon (yellow-brown) jaguar was in residence in his enclosure as I volunteered building the boardwalk in front of it. It didn’t take much of an imagination to think he could understand English. If anyone stopped and complimented the jaguar (saying pretty or wow) he would leap on to the highest rock and pose. A lot of those poses made it into Under a Blood Moon.

But culturally, tawny jaguars aren’t the most revered, that position goes to the black jaguar, whose fur is covered with deep black rosettes. Black jaguars are a mystical animal because of their ability to disappear into the night.  Oddly, black fur is a dominate trait not a recessive gene. A pair of black jaguars can have young with a variety of fur colors, while a cinnamon jaguar will only have more cinnamon offspring. Indigo’s daughter originally had cinnamon fur. While that’s still genetically possible (I haven’t explored her mother yet at all) I’m not sure it makes as much sense. She might need to have a dark coat like her father.

KaKaw vessels, also from the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

But my museum trip influenced more than the look of my new character.  The ancient people of Honduras traded their salt for chocolate. The chocolate drink, also known as kakaw, was a status symbol. The drink was prepared cold and unsweetened, sometimes with the a few vision inducing chemicals and held in tall, straight sized pitchers decorated with complex designs and mythological scenes. A number of chocolate pitchers were on display, and a few of them will make them to Indigo’s shop.