Terrible at Self-Promotion

I should have posted this last week, but somehow (procrastination, discombobulation, & feeling ill) I didn’t manage. The anthology WINTER WELL which contains my story COPPER was given a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and they describe COPPER as:

a fast-paced procedural that opens with a humorous hook before taking a turn for high-stakes seriousness.

Which is a better one-sentence description than I could EVER manage. Read the whole review, it’s short and does a good job of explaining not only my story but the anthology as a whole. It is a super fantastic anthology and I really enjoyed ALL the stories. It is exactly the kind of genre fiction I WANT to read and I’m so happy that Crossed Genres exist and continue to publish great fiction. 

The Next Big Thing – Work In Progress

I’ve been avoiding doing a Next Big Thing blog-hop for my current Work in Progress since late last summer, but when I got a tag inquiry from editor/writer Kay Holt, I said yes. She edited my upcoming novella “Copper” for Crossed Genres Winter Well, and I feel confident saying we both enjoyed the editing process on it and I eagerly hope to work with her again in the future. I suggest checking out her Next Big Thing entry. I know it has me interested in reading what she’s cooking up.

I’ve been in need of a good kick in the pants to finish up my Work In Progress. I’ve set it aside several times to work on other projects (most of which ended up published), but I fear my Alpha Readers (who get chapters as I finish them) are plotting to gang up on me and tie me to a chair if I don’t finish this one soon.

1. What is the working title of your next book?

Runed Creek: Sacrifice

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

I had a dream where a woman went back to her childhood home and has to break up a human sacrifice her mother and aunt have set up as one of her grandfather’s last wishes. After she’s freed the old man and young child, she takes her family to task for their actions… and suddenly everything changes. Magic flows into her from the house, and she hears her grandfather’s voice– but coming out of her ex-husband’s body.

I immediately knew it was a story, one I had to write, and began feeling around the edges to find out who these characters were and how they’d gotten to that point, and why they lived in an old mansion with that kind of power flowing through it.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

I like to call it “Rural Fantasy” it has a sort of Urban Fantasy vibe and is set present day, but it takes place in a rural setting.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Since I spend most of my spare time writing I’m not as up on current actors as I could be so I had to crowd-source this casting among my Alpha-readers.

Mishal – Rooney Mara with her natural hair color. She’s got the ability to do serious and sardonic and be powerfully angry as this character requires.

Grandfather – Jeff Bridges is pretty close to the voice I imagine for this character and in a movie version he’d be nothing but a voice 99% of the time.

Llewe – Is a casting nightmare, and neither myself nor any of my Alpha-readers could think of anyone known with the physicality to convey both his own character and do the quick posture and facial changes to denote Grandfather speaking through him.

Radley – Joseph Gordon Levitt, he’d be adorable with a blue mowhawk and a good fit as Mishal’s mellow DJ cousin.

Iccy – *retracted due to spoilers*

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Middle-Aged Chaos Mage goes back to the small magical town she grew up in, where magic, family, and the Norse Pantheon conspire to put her in charge of keeping the world from ending.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m planning to shop it around. Who knows?

7. How long did/will it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I write pretty slow. When I’m really pushing on a project I try to average 500 words/day. Some days I write 2000, others none, but as long as I average 500 I don’t stress it too much. I also tend to put long-fiction projects aside for shorter fiction calls. I started this story two years ago, and hope to finish a draft by the end of summer.

 8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I‘ve been told this has the same sort of vibe as the Kate Daniels books by Ilona Andrews but I’m not personally familiar with them.

I like to say I write tragically funny fiction. Everything I write has aspects of both tragedy and comedy with mythical influences of one kind or another. This particular world has more comedy than tragedy but there’s enough to keep it from being silly.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The dream I had led me to start looking at pictures and researching places this town could possibly exist. While pouring over maps of a likely area I found a small lake with a name that fit just a little TOO well to not use and then other things started to fall into place.

10.What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got cats, gnomes, demons, dwarves ordering shoes off the internet, druid dads, shamans, Dead Heads, ghosts, a marmot pooka, and a reliable 1953 claret red Jaguar MK VII as made possible by dark magics.

For other stops on the Blog Hop Check Out:

M. Fenn, author of “To The Edges” in Winter Well and “So The Taino Call It” in Substitution Cipherposted on Thursday, May 16th.

Marissa James, author of “The Second Wife” in Winter Well and “Ancestors Enthroned” in Daughters of Icarus posted on Monday, May 20th.

Anna Caro, author of “This Other World” in Winter Well and “Millie” in Outlaw Bodiesposted on Thursday, May 23rd.


Embracing Potential Failure

I have a problem. I need to do an edit pass on a novel project and I need to fix a short story I have no target market for. I know what needs to be done to both projects, but I am having trouble motivating myself to do either. It isn’t that I hate edits, I don’t– not when working on them for an editor. But in my mind there’s a big difference between fine-tuning something someone has already seen merit in enough to want to publish, and fine-tuning something that might still be rejected. 

I’ve had a similar problem a grant I’m writing for work. I know there’s a pretty good chance my institution will be turned down for the grant no matter what I do. It’s hard to know how much the sequestration has effected various government programs and while the grants still currently say they’re open there might be much less money than normal to be awarded or even no awards to give. It’s hard to do what is A LOT of work and in formats my brain doesn’t naturally want to work in, for what is likely to be no benefit. However, there is still a chance, and this chance will greatly benefit my institution and my position if we do get the grant. It’s just very hard to motivate myself and I keep thinking something will just shift and change and my brain will be “oh sure, let’s do this thing!” and everything will be easy.  

It isn’t easy. What’s easy is telling myself it’s not worth the effort. It’s always worth the effort. I just have to remind myself the worth isn’t always in the supposed reward. Some of my most rewarding experiences in the long run, seemed like tremendous personal failures initially. 

I guess it’s a little bit how I see dating. Dating isn’t just about finding a life partner, it’s just as much about finding qualities and quirks you can’t possibly deal with in a life partner. I strongly recommend dating a long string of the “wrong people who fit the description of what you think you want” to those just starting out in dating. You’ll learn more about yourself and what you really want that way. I thought I wanted a partner who would dote on me, and I got that in my first boyfriend. His doting was linked to personal insecurities, obsessive behaviors, co-dependance, and eventually emotional blackmail. It turned out I really didn’t want to be someone’s whole world and I had other things I’d prefer to spend my time on. This experience SAVED MY ASS so many times when I ended up in various relationships (work, friendship, intimate) where people began showing signs of similar behaviors and I was able to take steps to avoid problems. 

Now I just have to keep reminding myself of that when it comes to writing and work. The things I think I want might not be what I think they are, and I should push forward towards failure as well as success to make sure I’m getting the proper bad experiences to keep me from having worse experiences in the future. Avoiding the potential for failure is only going to hurt me, not protect me.

Advancement Through Weakness

“If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens.”― Fay Weldon

I learned to sculpt making kiln-fired ceramics. After I no longer had access to a kiln I switched to using sculpey clay and was constantly frustrated by what I saw as the limitations of sculpey. Some time passed and I happened upon instructions for a project that called for making an armature out of tin foil and then covering it in sculpey. I knew what an armature was, but I thought of it as being something you only used on very large sculptures. Discovering that simple tin foil could not only help me do what I wanted to, but could help me create things I hadn’t previously thought possible blew my mind. It opened up a whole new world of things I could create. It turned what I had seen as a limitation into a strength and opened up possibilities that weren’t possible with traditional clay techniques.

Recently I had to provide a full outline for a story and I discovered… I didn’t know how to construct a plot from the ground up without actually writing the whole story. Holy crap. Plot is the bones the story hangs on– and I don’t really think about it? Clearly I can’t be HORRIBLE at plot as my stories aren’t falling over due to lack of support– but how much better could they be?

It’s hard work doing plot autopsies of books and movies I enjoy. It’s even harder constructing my own outlines. I’d much rather rely on my strengths. Whenever I decide that learning to plot is too difficult my internal editor turns into my editor friend Lily standing over my prone form, her pink hair flying as she punctuates each word with a ruler smack, “You. Will. Learn. To. Plot.”




Dangers of Omission

There’s a tendency in urban genre writing to use an “Anywhere City, USA” setting but call it a specific real world city and throw in a specific location every so often. In naming a city I believe you enter a pact with the reader to use unique attributes of the city– or at least not to contradict them without explanation. A story set in our world or a very near version to our world causes the reader to weigh certain details based on the world we live in. So if you set a story in Seattle, but then make the city feel like San Francisco with more rain without a story reason, you’ve broken that pact with the reader.

A setting generally becomes “Anywhere City, USA” through omission. I think most writers do this (either on their own or in editing) to let readers overlay their own cities on the setting or because they don’t have the personal reference. If the former I’d personally prefer a fictional city with overtones of real ones, if the latter, there are ways to fix that. Everyone has used the internet to check up on a friend or former partner they’d rather not actually talk to– take those same skills and use them to stalk a city. Pretend you’ve just found out that you’re moving to that city in less than a month. What do you need to know? What sort of sources are you going to to use to get the information you need? Are you going to use the same guides that tourists use? No. You’re going to ask friends and look at blogs and maybe Yelp for your favorite kinds of food. You want anecdotal information, not tourist destinations.

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” -Stephen King

You don’t need gobs of place detail– you just need the right kinds of detail. Readers will nitpick but forgive getting a street name wrong (though with Google maps and Street View you can usually avoid this if you’re not writing a different time period). But getting the little details wrong is a little like dressing your setting in a floral print sheet and sending it to the first day of middle school. It WILL be teased and WILL require years of therapy.

If I have a character enter a gas station mini-mart and have them pay for gas and a soda– that’s just a generic setting. If I mention the sign on the back of the door reads “Cerrado”, the character picks up a tamarind flavored soda and a display of De la Rosa Peanut Marzapan candy at the front counter– and you know the character is in Los Angeles, the details work to reinforce the setting. You want to pick out the small things unique to the setting to highlight. Every detail should have a reason for being there, either to reinforce setting, character, or plot. If you remove the setting, just like if you remove a character, a good story should collapse. A lot of times in a short story the setting operates as an extension of the main character because there isn’t room to do world building.

If you notice in my mini-mart example above, I chose to highlight things from outside the dominant culture. While it is technically possible for a white middle-class male protagonist to only interact with white middle-class males over the course of a day in Los Angeles– it is not the norm. You would need to have a good explanation as to why that happened if you did that in a story. Omitting all mention of cultures outside of the dominant one effectively white-washes a story. When you do that in a city setting with a strong non-dominant cultural presence in our world, it doesn’t matter if you intended to or not, it will always look like it is done on purpose.

Be careful to not fall into the Firefly trap either. I really like the show and it has a lot of lovely details that show the influence of Asian cultures including a Mandarin Chinese derived jargon. However– there are no Asian characters. Which is REALLY CREEPY if you stop to think about it. Showing the influence but omitting the people seems like everyone belonging to that culture was killed off prior to the start of the story and never mentioned.

Cultural awareness is not only in what details you use, it is in what details you consciously or unconsciously omit.

The Pen is Mightier (or at least works better for me)

I took a math class where the professor required students to write the equation in one ink color, do work in a different color, write the answer in a third, and then circle it in a fourth. It took a long time to do assignments this way and was generally irritating. The prof’s reasoning was based on a study that said forcing students to switch writing implements helped us learn better. I wouldn’t take a class from that professor again because of the aggravation, but I did best in that class of any math class I ever took. The act of switching pens allowed me to shift my brain over to a more mechanical step-by-step process. I could imagine myself as a computer taking the instructions from the equation and applying processes to get the answer.

When I write fiction, I write notes and first drafts longhand on paper with a fountain pen. I don’t use four colors to write with, but I do write in non-standard colors and write different stories or different POV (point of view) characters in different colored inks to help my brain switch gears. In my current project I label one POV character’s scenes in red and one in yellow in Scrivener so I’ve split the difference and draft in a pretty orange color. Picking a color I don’t see when I’m doing other kinds of work really helps put my brain into the right mode and allows me to focus.

I don’t revise as I write in pen. On the computer I can backspace 10 times faster than I can type. Writing in pen is the only way I can give myself permission to write badly. I cross stuff out, sometimes write the same few lines 3-5 ways, but every word I write is still there on the paper at the end of the day. Seeing my true word output goes a long way toward a sense of accomplishment. I measure my first drafts in an estimated word count based on 100 words per pocket notebook page. My actual word count is 110-120 per page, so I purposefully under-estimate because that 10-20% is what I lose in the first typing. I am a terrible over-writer. My edits cut words overall even if I add sections. A recent short story drafted in at around 10k. The first typed version was around 8k and the second pass dropped it under the target of 6k.

I have a tendency to stare off into space when I’m writing. If I do that on the computer, my ingrained tendency from data entry work is to tab over to something else to regain my focus, which I do, but not on the thing I was working on. Working on paper removes that possibility. Sometimes even when I’m typing up work I have to put Freedom on so I can’t get too distracted. If I need to look something up, I write myself a note to do it when I type it up. If I can’t continue without looking something up I’ve probably done something terribly wrong in the story.

My equipment for writing is totally analog. I can work anywhere, anytime. I don’t need a power outlet, wifi, or even a table or desk. I often drive to a pretty ocean vista and write for an hour or two.

There’s a distinctly tactile feel to writing on paper (especially with a nice pen). I can literally feel the words take shape. I am a very spacial and tactile person. I love sculpting with clay, but can’t get my brain to grok the same techniques in a digital sculpting program. I utterly fail at any sort of flying game that gives me an x, y, and z axis to control… cause I can’t feel the movement and get turned upside down and backwards within seconds. I need that tactile feel of ink flowing onto paper. It’s just how I’m wired.

This is what works for me. I’ve experimented and flailed around with lots of different things.

Sure, some of this is just because I love buying pens and different colored ink– but it works for me. Every so often I’ll get it in my head that I’m going to start drafting on the computer because I type 80-120 words per minute. I type MUCH faster than I can write. Every time I try it… I’m ten days into things, struggling with every word, and have little to show for my efforts.

My battle cry when writing is: “We’ll fix it in post!” I used work in video production, and it’s something you say when there’s a snafu but for whatever reason you’re not going to re-shoot it. It’s a more professional way to urge people forward to the next task. If you want to finish a project, you have to move forward to then end– then you can fix it. It is A LOT easier to cut the path you want in a mess of words that aren’t quite right than it is to lay them like tile. Unlike four hours of footage no one had a mic plugged into the camera, you really CAN fix everything in post in writing. For me, writing in pen is the way I keep kicking my own ass forward.

Character Knowledge

To write believable characters you need to know them the way you know real people. They MUST be products of their own past experiences and environments. This means you need to know a bunch of people and as much of their own past experiences as they’ll share. This will give you a framework for how events and environments shape people. This is something you can never master, but you’ll get better at the more people you meet and talk to. You also need to understand how what you know about people shapes your (or your character’s) interaction with them.
Let me show an example:

Setting and interaction: Main Character (MC) is standing in line at the grocery store. There are two people ahead in line. One of the customers is pleasant to the grocery clerk, the other is surly and overly hostile. Now think of how the scene changes each time as we change the knowledge/relationship the MC has about/with the grocery clerk. Think of the different things you can relay about the MC through this interaction.

Observable Knowledge: Only the details the MC can observe. The clerk’s appearance: name tag, hairstyle, non-uniform clothing items, jewelry. The clerk’s general demeanor and responses as they deal with the two customers and the MC.
[This is still a decent amount of information and allows you to show how the MC sees the world and other people. Any character that warrants mentioning their name should get at LEAST this level of information and preferably a decent in-depth thought from the MC if in 1st or 3rd limited. If you aren’t putting at least this much information about the character over the course of the story (might not be all at once) you probably shouldn’t give them a name. Personally, I’d hesitate to give them a name unless they show up in more than one scene or the MC spends a lot of time observing/internalizing about them. Giving everyone a name is how you end up with 42 named characters in 10,000 words. (*Cough*What me? Never. *Cough*) ]

Habitual Knowledge: Details gleaned over habitual interactions. The clerk is a clerk that the MC interacts with on a semi-regular basis. Nothing too personal, the clerk and MC don’t use each other’s names outside of the prescribed interaction. The MC and clerk know each other by sight and have had at least 10-20 previous interactions to this one. The MC can probably tell (and vice-versa) if the clerk is having a good or bad day even if they are being professionally polite.

Sustained Knowledge: The clerk is one that the MC has had clerk/customer interactions with for years, possibly their entire life. The MC remembers their Mom buying things from this clerk over a period of years. They still do not have a social relationship outside the customer/clerk interaction, but the relationship is as deep as it can possibly be within those confines. The clerk knows the MC’s family, job, habits.

Past Knowledge: The clerk is someone the MC went to High School with. This layers Observable Knowledge with unrelated past events. The MC and clerk may know extensively about each other’s past but have almost no knowledge of the present.

Life Knowledge: The clerk is the MC’s best friend. They have a shared past, shared present, shared secrets far beyond any clerk/costumer interaction.

Every one of those scenes would have the exact same framework but the details and interactions would all be different. It is important to not only think about the character’s past and present but how the past and present of others around them touch upon their lives both before and during the story.