06/15/16

Picking Sea Monsters Georgia Aquarium

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.

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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.

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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.

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Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.

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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.

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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.

03/15/16

Building a Brand

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.

12/16/15

Apologies

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.

11/2/15

Pagan New Year’s Resolutions

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.

Blog more
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.

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.

03/15/15

Writing and Quilting: Editing my Stash

The odd thing about writing is that it spreads to take over your life. You find yourself in meetings thinking about characters or editing for other people when you should be talking. In my case, writing is oozing into my two hobbies, running and quilting. My running is getting the same treatment as Under A Blood Moon, where I’m adding quality words, or runs, to make the overall product better. My quilting suffers from the opposite problem – I’m cutting out yards of fabric as if they were wordy paragraphs of purple prose.

I’m willing to bet that most of you aren’t quilters, and you probably aren’t familiar with the concept of a stash. It’s exactly like hoarding fabric, except that no quilter admits that. T-shirts proclaim “whoever dies with the most fabric wins.” There are “Fabric Acquisition Road Trips” cleverly called FARTs and fabric swaps. The goal is always to have more fabric. One of my quilting friends has proudly filled an eight ft. by ten ft. shed. Since quilting fabric is meant to last for a hundred years, the amount of a quilter’s “stash” can easily grow to surpass a thousand yards.

My own meager stash reads like a history of my life. I found quilting when I was 17. Here was a room full of caring, open women, the wise Aunts and Great-Aunts I never had. They talked about everything, helpfully corrected my mistakes, and were genuinely interested in sharing their craft with me. My mother and I were never close. I had no girlfriends. The camaraderie of women was a new and wonderful discovery. All of my fabric from those years is feminine – tiny calico prints, big flowers, pastel pinks, and purples.

A square from my first quilt, tiny light blue, purple, and pink flowers mixed with a pink-purple. I loathe calicoes now.

A square from my first quilt, tiny light blue, purple, and pink flowers mixed with a pink-purple. I loathe calicoes now.

Fast-forward a decade, and I was working in Washington DC, one of a million drones for the federal government. My greatest fear was that I would wake up forty years later, having wasted my life in the same building, at the same job. My fabric: skulls, screaming ghosts, bats, and spiders; a not-so-subtle expression of rebellion sewn into traditional patterns.

I liked this fabric so much I had it made into a dress. The skulls glow in the dark!

I liked this fabric so much I had it made into a dress. The skulls glow in the dark!

And now? Now I’m buying batiks, saturated color that doesn’t have a wrong side. Some quilters frown on bold colors, saying they take over a quilt. That’s what I love. I like creating a pattern of lines and geometric shapes, creating order with color. Modern style quilts, with their hard lines and 1960s feel have become my new favorite.

Back to the editing: I’m getting rid of fabric. That’s a shocking confession for a quilter, but there are things I’m ready to let go. Editing my writing has taught me that less is more and it that applies to my fabric. When I got rid of 22 yards this week I realized that every yard felt like a burden. I felt a pressure to use that fabric as soon as I could, and guilt over the way I carried it with me over various moves and over the years. Getting rid of it took an item off my to-do list and freed me up to take on other things.

I don’t know what those other things are. Right now, writing is the focus of my life, quilting doesn’t seem as important. I’m pretty happy about that, and I’m excited about the future. But while I’m looking forward to road tripping to Bouchercon (a conference for mystery writers) this fall, I still might stop at fabric store along the way.

01/1/15

Under a Blood Moon contracted to Wild Rose Press

I’m thrilled to announce my book deal with the Wild Rose Press. Under a Blood Moon will be published electronically and in print sometime in the next year. Some story details:

With a single touch, Detective Mallory Mors controls death and communes with the recently killed, but even her magic isn’t enough to solve the string of violent murders and kidnappings that terrify Baton Rouge.

A member of the Supernatural Investigative Unit (SIU), Mallory is called to the scene of a zombie attack in an immigrant neighborhood. The case quickly escalates to involve werewolf extortionists, voodoo queens, and ghosts. Every morning Malloy finds a new scene of mass murder with most of the victims eaten. The case is complicated by the intrusion of the FBI in the form of her boyfriend’s best friend, a prickly vampire who has hunted werewolves for centuries. When Mallory is saved from a pair of killer werewolves by a sexy werejaugar, she realizes it will take all of the town’s supernatural citizens to solve the case.

I created this world because my love of folklore and fairy tales doesn’t live in just one culture. I’m as fascinated by Greek satyrs as I am by Mesoamerican jaguar shifters. I brought all of those myths together under the fiery Louisiana sun until they melted into a world with vampire safe apartments that block out sunlight with the flick of a switch and churches for all the pagan gods. The detectives of the SIU are part of the community they serve, they don’t just police the supernatural citizens, they are supernatural.

One of the great joys of being an author is shaping a world to fit your values. That’s why the people in Mallory’s world fought the Morality Wars, a series of international conflicts that stopped the trafficking of women and children. Prostitution has been legalized and highly regulated to end the exploitation of sex workers. Gender equality as reached a place where both men and women can express their sexuality openly. There’s no slut shaming when Mallory’s best friend Phoebe seduces all sorts of men just for the fun of it.

Also important to me: diversity. I wanted to include people from different cultures and communities. The SIU’s lieutenant is black. The community where the trouble begins is Indian. Mallory goes dancing with Anna, a tall and thin model, and Isaura, a plus-sized cutie. Malloy’s partner at work and her vampire boyfriend are both Catholic. Isaura is Jewish. Anna and Phoebe are both witches but they worship at different pagan churches.

Under a Blood Moon is my third manuscript and the second in this universe. An earlier story that details Mallory’s arrival in Baton Rouge and how she meets everyone lives in a drawer in my office. While I love that story, Under a Blood Moon sets a faster pace, focusing on a complex case that weaves folklore and legends into issues of community and inclusion.

I began work on Under a Blood Moon in 2007 and have been polishing it ever since. A detective story with supernatural and romantic elements, I worked hard to strike the right balance between the case and Mallory’s personal life. I’m excited to work with the editors and artists at Wild Rose to put the finishing touches on a great story so the world can read it.

10/15/14

Back Cover Copy

Back cover copy is my favorite part of writing. A whole novel takes a long enough that your confidence fails. You doubt yourself. There are nights when every words has to be pried out, making me feel like a dentist with a pair of pliers and my knee in the patient’s chest. A synopsis takes all of that work – weeks and months of it – and forces you to choose just the barest of outlines while insisting you not leave anything out. Marketing copy, those little two lines blurbs, are equally impossible. I just agonized over 100,000 words, and now I have to reduce it down to two sentences? Nope.

But on a back over I just need to say enough to intrigue a reader. I only have to tantalize and tease. All the hard things – showing a character grow and change, developing tension, or making a relationship seem real – can be skipped. That’s why back cover copy usually comes first, and why sometimes it’s the only thing I write.

Thus I give you back cover copy from books I will likely never get around to writing.

Windswept (Inspirational Romance)

When Kim Newland hears that her hometown has been devastated by a hurricane she shrugs her shoulders. She lived through enough hurricanes not to worry, but when her sister, Kristi, asks her for money everything changes for the hard driving lawyer. Money and family in need are the two things that caused ruined her life. Wanting to help but scared of repeating her greatest mistake, Kim heads into the town determined to help make things right.

George Dent spent the hurricane pulling people out of crumbling houses and praying God would stop the storm. Now that it’s over he’s working even harder on clean up, trying to find the missing, comfort the hurt, and maybe, if there’s time, rebuild his church. He’s never had time for a family of his own, and now he’s busier than ever. When Kristi brings her reluctant sister along to the firehouse kitchens he doesn’t know what to say to Kim. Should he try to break through her hard exterior and help her find faith and family again, or just focus on his own work?

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Remnant’s Revenge (Romantic Suspense)

Srgt. Steve Carter barely remembers the combat accident that stole his soul. Being dead for five minutes wasn’t bad, coming back to life as a remnant, without morals or ethics and with no way to love is horrible. Discharged from the Army for conduct he can’t control, Carter drifts, trying to get back to the man he was.

ER Dr. Jessica Kelly has just found an interesting set of anomalies on the MRI scans of a patient who died briefly on the operating room table. The changes in brain usage might explain the sudden shift in personality and behavior. And if she can explain it, she can fix it. But before she can gather more data she finds herself targeted by shadowy organization, a group willing to kill to keep the remnants exactly as they are.

 

06/1/14

Jerusalem Markets, Cultural appropriation, and what I’m writing now…

My current manuscript is set in 1973. Writing in an historic setting is new to me, and it’s been quite a challenge. In an effort to get things ‘right’ I’ve interviewed people who were the same age as my main character and spent time in the library reading the magazines and news reports of the era. I’m listening to the hit songs, and checking out the fashions online. Still, there are things that worry me.

Normally I write about paranormal worlds, so far no vampires or fairies have been upset by me appropriating their culture. I don’t want to take the same license with the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, or the gay power movement. I’m going to write about those things through the eyes of a white girl, which is something I know, but I want her friends, black, gay, or whatever they are, to be a realistic, fully faceted portrayal.

I thought I was doing a pretty good job until this weekend, when I was invited to a Jerusalem Market. Having never heard of such a thing, I went more out of curiosity than anything else. A sign at the front made it clear that while the event took place during Passover in the time period of Jesus’ life, it would not be historically accurate. I’ve been to a few Renfests, so that didn’t bother me.

The Wailing Wall did.

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The Western Wall is one of the most sacred locations for the Jewish Culture. At the Jerusalem Market, it was a wall where children were encouraged to write prayers in chalk. I assume this was a nod to the practice of slipping slips of paper with prayers written on them into the cracks of the real Western Wall. I assumed because no one explained the wall, why it was there, or what made it important. I’m struggling to come up with an equivalent for the Western Wall, something sacred and yet public, a part of everyday life. If I could find something as important to my culture as the Wall is to many religions, I think I could decide if this model was offensive.

The Market was clearly not meant to be offensive. Most of the booths talked about some aspect of Jewish culture during Jesus’ life. Roman centurions wandered the grounds. One man was dressed as a Rabbi. A booth held samples of the herbs used at the time, explaining what each one was used for. Another let children experiment making clay pots. There was a puppet show about Jesus, and a chance to listen to an actor dressed as Jesus teach lessons under the trees.

At the matzo baking station I began to doubt that the intention was what mattered. I’ve heard stories of Passover from Jewish friends. I know just a little bit about the deep cleaning a house goes through and how not even a crumb of leavened bread can be left behind. I didn’t learn anything like that while I mixed my flour and water. The only discussion of why Jews don’t eat leavened bread during Passover was “they were running away from Pharaoh, so they didn’t have time for the bread to rise.” When the matzo was finished we were offered a mixture of apples and walnuts to spread on it. “It’s supposed to look like the mortar in the wall,” the volunteer told me. She didn’t remember what it was called, but encouraged me to try it anyway.

As a member of the majority, I can’t decide what offends the minority. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t get a say in what is and isn’t okay to be a children’s activity. Still, to me, taking a part of another culture and turning it into a learning activity for kids might not be bad. Taking a part of another culture, not bothering to learn what it is or the meaning behind it, and making it a fun activity for kids crosses the line to me. Then again, when I posted about it on Facebook a Jewish friend wasn’t offended, saying that at least learning was going on.

So if everyone isn’t offended by the same thing, and I can’t decide what is and isn’t offensive, how do I know what’s okay to write? My plan going forward is to tell the story, making the characters as real as possible. I’m going to stay away from stereotypes and base my characters on the people I interview, not the common idea of what someone of that race, gender, or minority should be. I’m also hoping to find some beta readers from the cultures I’m writing about, people who can tell me if I’ve missed something important.

I don’t know if that’ll be enough, but hopefully it’s a good start.