09/15/17

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.

08/1/17

Erotica in art and my writing

The news came just before a big vacation, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. After three years of planning and saving, suddenly all I could think about was the proclamation so casually dropped in my lap:

“If your book has more than four sex scenes, it’s erotica.”

And just like that all the times I’ve tried explain that my books have sex scenes but are actually mysteries with supernatural elements became a lie. All those jokes I’ve told about writing “vampire smut” became my truth. I write…Erotica.

While I spend a lot of time writing sex scenes, making sure that the action is sizzling but also true to the relationship on the page, I never put myself in the category. I write about women, and they have sex. So yes, my characters have sex, which is described in about the same detail as their meals and their clothes. All of those things are important to them, I couldn’t write out all of the sex to focus only on being a police detective and still give you a realistic picture of Mallory’s life.

Instead, you’ll get (roughly) four sex scenes per book, always when it’s natural and called for as part of the plot. In Under A Blood Moon, I counted them out to be sure the pacing made sense. In Fire in Her Blood, I ended up cutting nearly 60k words and two sex scenes. In the next book, Blood, Dirt, and Lies, I “shut the bedroom door” to make sure there were only four at my editor’s request.

Turning a detailed scene into a single line (something like “they melted together, in a dance of passion and love”) doesn’t bother me. Writing out sex all together would. I write my books to escape from the mundane-workday-world, I don’t want to escape to someplace that doesn’t have any passion.

But the label haunted me as I went through great places in Europe. I visited the palace where Mark (from Under a Blood Moon) grew up, a wine cellar that will show up as a future vampire’s bedroom, and a baroque estate that’s a perfect residence for Jakob for the 1600s. In the back of my head I wondered: does all this matter if it’s just erotica?

And then I went to the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich and saw this:

An ancient Egyptian statue depicts a couple having sex.

Ancient Egyptian Erotica on display. In a museum. Where you go to learn about culture. Shocking.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks sex is part of a normal, healthy life. And while my work may now be classified as “erotica” the stories haven’t changed. I’m still writing thrillers with romance and spooky parts. I’m still showing normal relationships with ups and downs, jealous moments and tender parts. I hope that’s something the world will still read, because I wouldn’t want to write any other way.

 

07/1/17
A stack of my published novels and several medals from races I've finished

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.

 

 

Save

06/15/17

Time to Take First Things First

In my last blog, I talked about time-tithing. I was gripped with a fever to give back to the writing community and impressed with the way giving back helped me as a person and a writer. I followed through with what I posted, and volunteered as a last-minute judge for the annual writing contest.

It’s important for me to judge books the way I would want my own to be judged. I’ll never forget the seasoned, privileged romance novelist who, upon hearing a summary of Under a Blood Moon, immediately said “you could never pay me enough to read that sort of trash”. Now serial killer werewolves aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t make them trash.  While I might not like your topic or the way your heroine thinks, that doesn’t make a book trash. I spent about half a day on each book, looking at the mechanics of the story and not how my own values applied to the characters.

I also volunteered my time to a local quilt guild, and inspired a great story idea. My work judging novels helped my writing and motivated me to join RWA (Romance Writers of America). So time-tithing was a success! But that great story idea demanded my immediate attention, with the words running like quicksilver through my fingers, teaching me another important lesson:

You need time to do the things that matter most.

The story idea came to me at 3am on a Saturday morning. I gave up about six hours of sleep planning and plotting. I started my writing time an hour earlier and kept going an hour longer than usual. I shorted myself on sleep, whittled my morning beauty routine down to a quick five minutes, and barely made it to my day job on time. I spent all of my time writing and editing. I didn’t cook meals (sorry, Tiger!), clean house, or go out with friends. A story grabbed me and I held on tight.

In a week I wrote nearly 7,500 words.

I have a clean plot. I have a character reference sheet. I know how the story will go and how I can promote it. And I hope to all the Gods above the words keep coming. Because there’s really nothing better than writing. While the idea would never have come without the volunteer work, the words wouldn’t have come if I didn’t shut everything out.

I’m very lucky to have a partner who will support me and a day job that isn’t jeopardized when I go on a writing spree. But I also need to make good choices and set clear boundaries. It’s easy to lose time on meaningless things: TV shows, facebook, internet “research”. There a million metaphors about managing your time. YouTube videos show people putting large rocks into glass jars, then smaller rocks, then pebbles, then sand, until finally the jar must be full. But no! There’s room for water. Search a little longer and you’ll find the advice that a woman should have four things in her life – her work, her family, her health, and one other thing. (Not two! You can’t ever have two jobs or two hobbies, nope not enough time.)

I don’t agree with all the advice that’s out there, but this last week has made it clear: I need to do what matters most first. For me that’s writing. My commitment to my writing – whether it’s this blog, a guest blog, a short story, or a novel – comes first. Any other commitments need to wait. If they can’t wait, I don’t have time for them in my life.

11/15/16

Fire in Her Blood Cover Art!

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

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

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

Things I love about this book:

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

Here’s the back-cover description:

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

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

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

Save

Save

08/15/16

Connecting with Strangers from Far Away

“I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter. “ Agent Peggy Carter

That geeky quote served as my mantra for most of June and July when sales for The Mermaid and the Murders were less than wonderful. I knew my second book was a good story. I trusted my editor, publisher, beta readers, and copy editors. One of them, somewhere along the line, would’ve told me if the book was an epic failure. I paid for advertisements. I ran a Goodreads giveaway. Still, silence echoed back at me, as if I released the book into a void.

On August 1st, The Mermaid and the Murders was posted on NetGalley. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, NetGalley is an online service for librarians and book reviewers that allows them to download stories free of charge. I didn’t expect much, and to be honest I haven’t looked at my sales numbers to see if they’ve gone up.  I have  gotten a handful of really great reviews, which is wonderful, but the feeling of awe and wonder at where those reviews have come from blows me away.

Chen Mermaid quote

Chen Argote, called my mermaid amazing, said her town was “scary yet fascinating” and that she “loved my trip there in this reading adventure.” I’ve never met Chen. She lives in Manila, Philippines, a place I’ve only read about in books. But she gave me hours of her life as she read my book. When it was over, she was glad to have given me that time.

That’s incredible to me, in the classic sense of the word. Almost impossible to believe that someone so far away loved a story I put together to drive away their winter gloom.

In Sudbury, Canada, a place I had to look up on the map (and now need to visit) , Chelsie picked up my book and “didnt want to put this book down”. She saw herself in my mermaid, saying “I could relate to her struggles”.  She called my story “entertaining with a wonderful love interest and some great intrigue.”

Image of CharmedChelsie's twitter feed about my book

My first Twitter connection with a reader. Squee!

She connected with my characters even though we have very different lives. Did she love everything? Nope.

 

Sprinkled in my positive reviews have been tiny flecks of criticism; valid, important criticism that I’ll use to make the next book better. I haven’t had a terrible review yet. They’re all four or five stars. I’m grateful, but not arrogant. A terrible review will come. When it does, I hope I remember the wonder and joy I’m feeling right now, because even if someone hates my book, they still read my words. They slipped into my world, explored my ideas, and (hopefully) came away from it with something to think about. I might know my worth, but I never felt my connection with a reader, until now. I’m humbled, awed, in love, grateful, and praying it never goes away.

 

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

07/15/16

My blog so far…

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.

05/1/16

Is your hero a jerk?

I’ve found some of my favorite authors by judging a writing contest each year in the spring. I’ve been a judge for several years now, but I’ve never seen this many “jerk” entries. That’s my pet name for romances where the hero is, deep down, a jerk. Thus I give you, signs your hero might be a jerk:

Your hero doesn’t let his heroine make decisions.
It doesn’t matter how he does it, withholding information is just as bad as sharing but ignoring her opinion. In either case, or any other situation you can think of, not letting an adult decide what will happen with their life makes you a jerk. I recently threw a book across the room because the hero refused to share with the heroine what was happening to her. He’d turned her into a vampire, but he wouldn’t say what that meant or how it would happen. While she (literally) sat in the dark wondering, he set up a car accident to fake her death, bought new clothes for her, and generally decided how her life would go. Jerk.

Your hero decides what the couple will do. All. The. Time.
The heroine wants to talk through an issue; the hero wants to have sex. They end up having sex instead of talking. The heroine wants to run errands; the hero wants to go to the game. They go to the game. Partnerships require communication and compromise. The hero picking every activity, meal, and sometimes even the heroine’s clothes isn’t fair. I don’t mean the hero should always do what the heroine wants. In The Mermaid and the Murders, the hero turns down sex, twice. Both times Danika, the heroine, is ready, willing, and excited, but the hero, Sam, isn’t. Now if Danika was a jerk, she’d insist or belittle him. She doesn’t. She’s still frustrated but she talks to him about why he said no, eventually coming around to his point of view. A hero who turns aggressive or pouts when he doesn’t get his way? He’s a jerk.

Your hero plays tricks or tries to catch the heroine in a lie.
People make mistakes and tell white lies. Accepting that and forgiving your partner is part of being in a healthy relationship. Tailing them to confirm they’re going out with who they say they’re going out with, using the “find my phone” feature to track them, or insisting they call you when they reach their destination is a jerk move. This behavior pops up in historic mysteries too. One of the books I judged had a hero who waited in the alley outside the heroine’s, watching her. Another set up a dinner where the guests could test the heroine’s knowledge of India to ‘help her’ prove she had really been there. If you’re hero can’t trust the heroine at all, he might be a jerk.

Your hero shouldn’t rape. Ever.
I hate that this has to be said, but I saw in two books this year. Here’s the deal – rape is an unforgivable crime. I can’t move past it to care for the hero. There are no circumstances where rape is okay. Not if the victim is a prostitute and the hero gives her extra money after the assault. Not if the hero uses supernatural powers to make the victim forget. Not if the hero is part of culture where rape is okay. There are no heroes who rape.

I’m not saying every man in a romance novel must be perfect – flaws make characters real. There’s a big difference between a flawed character and a jerk. A flawed person apologizes when they screw up. They recognize what they did was wrong and try not to do it again. They might not always succeed but their apology is meaningful and sincere. You can see that they’re making an effort to be better. The jerk doesn’t think he’s screwed up. He might apologize but it’s an insincere effort to get something. Maybe he’ll do something the heroine wants, once or twice, but always with the idea of quid-pro-quoi in mind.

I read romance to see a healthy relationship develop over the course of the book. I expect to see the couple talking, considering each other’s feelings, making decisions together, and generally working through their troubles to have a healthy, happy relationship. I don’t need them to be perfect people but I require kindness and respect.

Because at this point in my life, real heroes aren’t the guys with abs or bags of money; they’re the guys who do the dishes, take care of the kids, and remember my favorite flavor of ice cream. I’m more impressed by people who show they genuinely care. Diamonds are lovely, but taking the day off work to sit with me in a doctor’s office when I’m scared is priceless.

Of course not every guy is going to do that. It’s asking for a lot, but at least the guys in romance novels shouldn’t be jerks.

04/14/16

The Mermaid and the Murders Cover Art Reveal

Meet my new friend, Danika, the mermaid:

A mermaid rests on the bottom of the ocean, stretching her hand out toward a dead body floating on the waves.

Isn’t it perfect?

I started writing Danika’s story as a way to reconnect to my memories from Key West, FL. Danika lives in a house I stayed in one summer. I was there as the hired help, but still enjoyed the private beach, boat dock, and three levels of ocean front porches. You could see pods of dolphins from the kitchen’s deck, they found their way into the story too.

As did some of the less than postcard worthy moments of my life like the ugly fights I had with my mother. I’m sure those aren’t unique to my teenage years, just as Danika struggles with lust and desire but wanting to do right thing aren’t unique to mermaids. Danika’s mistakes when she takes her driver’s license exam are pretty unique – uniquely mine. My driver’s ed teacher was the perfect model for her mean, loud, and unwilling-to-bend-on-mistakes teacher.

Danika’s last name came from a very dear friend of mine, a real life pirate who lived on a sail boat. One of my first feminist friends, the two of us talked long into the night about how young women’s’ sexuality is muzzled by society. Danika grew out of the conversations, long before I ever started writing her. She’s not thinking of marriage or finding true love, but craving passion and physical release. It was a lot of fun creating a world where the woman, not the man, is the sexual aggressor.

While sex and boys are on her mind Danika also loves books and learning. As the novel opens, she’s gulping down every bit of information she can get before her time on land runs out. Fitting in and never letting anyone know she’s a mermaid helps that time last longer. That’s what matters to her until the moment you see captured on the cover. When Danika finds a dead body on her reef she realizes sometimes you have to risk what you want to do the right thing.

The Mermaid and the Murders, Danika’s story, will be available for pre-order soon, and released worldwide on June 10th. I hope you all have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

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.