Saturday, August 1, 2015
July 27th I kicked off my Bewitching Blog Tour for Hurricane of the Heart. It coincided with the release of my latest multicultural romance Hurricane of the Heart in kindle format and paperback. You can follow my tour schedule by clicking on Bewitching Blog Tour.
I began the tour with a character interview on Eclipse Reviews. For that interview I chose Alia Graneau, the indigenous native of Dominica and female lead in Hurricane of the Heart. You can follow this link to see the full interview complete with dreamcast photo. In a nutshell, the interviewer asked a wide range of questions as if she was interviewing me and I answered them as Alia would.
It was the first time doing a character interview and I had great fun getting into the mind of the character I had created. But it was more than just fun. It was getting to know Alia on an intimate level. Doing this interview I learned a lot of nuances about the character, what she would and wouldn’t do, her love, what she abhorred and her angst. I learned how her past was affecting her actions, her decisions, her outlook on life. I got intimate exposure to her personality and her thought processes.
When I completed the interview I had to ask myself why I didn’t do this before. We often read books or reviews of books where the characters are not fully developed. If authors did character interviews with the main characters, they would be so much more developed because their creators would get to know them intimately. Consequently I made the decision that in addition to or in lieu of a character sketch I would do an interview with my lead characters in my future books.
I’m not saying the character interview can replace a character sketch. I’m saying it is a great tool that allows writers to develop great three dimensional characters. It is a tool I intend to utilize to ensure well developed characters.
How do you ensure well developed, dimensional characters in your stories? If you haven’t already, read my character interview on Eclipse reviews and let me know if interviewing your characters is a tool that you may consider using in the future.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
I have spent much of the previous year in this room, and all over the Dickinson house, if only in my mind. The writing of my novel, Miss Emily, about the poet and her Irish maid, brought me into The Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, over and over. As a girl, I recited ‘A Bird came down the Walk’ with actions, to amuse my sisters. Now I stand in the very bedroom of the very poet I loved – so much so that I specialised in her incisive, explosive poems for my final exams. Poetry brought me here. And a hunger to know how the reclusive poet conducted her seclusion. And baking too, as it happens.
Emily Dickinson was not truly the downbeat, morbidity-obsessed recluse of myth. Yes, as she grew older she secluded herself, but she was a devoted friend, and she took part in the domestic scene of The Homestead. Emily loved to bake, particularly cakes, and she would send them with a verse or recipe to her friends. She said to one: ‘People must have puddings.’
As part of the research for Miss Emily, I baked some of the poet’s recipes: Coconut Cake (now a favourite in my house); the gingerbread she famously made for local children and lowered in a basket from her upstairs window; and her gigantic Black Cake, a rich fruitcake that uses nineteen eggs and five pounds of raisins. As I baked I thought about Emily’s sassy, amusing voice in her letters, her commitment to her friends, and her need for solitary space in which to write. I wondered about her relationship with her various Irish maids – Maggie Maher, Margaret O’Brien, Rosina Mack – and, soon, I was writing a novel about baking, friendship, writing, and the mistress-servant relationship, featuring a fictional Irish maid called Ada Concannon.
Emily’s life is reasonably well documented – there are many books about her and I read a lot of them. But, for the sake of my own writing practice, I had to counterbalance her with a fictional character; I needed that novelistic freedom. It was more satisfying to me to invent a new Irish maid to slot into the year I had chosen to concentrate on – 1866 – a year where in fact the Dickinsons had no maid at all.
My research took many forms: reading the poetry and biographies, poring over pictures of Emily’s belongings in online archives – the family’s white, gold-rimmed china; Emily’s garnet and pearl brooch; her gold and citrine letter seal; the blue shawl she wore. I researched many topics including how to make butter (I bought a glass churn and made some); the use of remedies such as sarsaparilla, calomel and tansy; and Irish superstitions (Ada believes in signs and portents).
When I had a first draft of Miss Emily completed, I visited Amherst and went to the poet’s house and her brother’s next door, both of which make up the Emily Dickinson Museum. I saw her white dress in the Amherst History Museum and I went to Harvard University, to view Emily’s original cherrywood desk. I joined the Emily Dickinson International Society (EDIS) and met fellow fans at my first meeting which, coincidentally, took place in Amherst.
And although Miss Emily is published now, and I’m busy writing and editing my fourth novel, I am not finished with Emily Dickinson at all – once you fall hard for her, she will not let you go. As part of my US book tour, I return to Amherst for the third time this August to read from my novel at the EDIS conference. And I am still buying books about Emily, still obsessively reading her poetry and finding new things there. I even got a tattoo in her honour. Because it is so easy, when you immerse yourself in Emily’s company, to simply ‘gather Paradise’ and dwell there.
Saturday, July 25, 2015
The first few days, there is the angst of the lost/delayed/where-the-hell-could-it-be luggage. The flight to Berlin from LAX is delayed by over an hour, making the connector in Düsseldorf to Berlin almost impossible.
I am a champion, so I lurch, like a winning Igor, to the farthest-away Berlin connector gate at DDF. This, despite the fact that, on the long flight, my left foot has swollen to the size of a prize-winning eggplant. I make the cut. I throw up my arms in Olympian victory.
One-footed and clumping, I run-hop down two flights of industrial metal stairs to a bus, which will deliver us to the Berlin-bound toy plane. The glass doors of the bus close behind me--WHOOSH. The bus stands there, doing nothing, with no a/c, for another seven minutes.
We putter to the plane and board it, but, alas, unbeknownst to us, our checked luggage does not.
Robust Tante Gertrud greets us at the gate in Berlin. She's about 88 or 89 and walks faster than I do. The cane is for her bum knee. Her left foot is not rendered useless and dragging, by spending eleven hours wedged between a window and a seat, like mine.
She braves desert winds and 95˚ heat (have I mentioned the lack of a/c yet?) to meet our plane. In response, I ask her to sit by herself with our carry-on luggage in a coffee corner, while we descend at least five circles to the heart of darkness, which is The Horror of International Lost Baggage Claims.
The Baggage Express Handling Department at Tegel Airport is up two halls, then straight ahead 1/4 mile, then down two flights of industrial metal stairs, then a U-turn, and another 1/4 mile back.
"Wow, isn't Germany great?" I ask Alan. "And the welcoming attitude of every person to whom we've spoken! The flower wreaths lovingly placed around our necks upon landing, the scraping and bowing, the gratitude for the tourist dollar. I see why everyone loves the laid-back, island vibe." Alan makes his fish-face.
After 20 minutes in line in the Cavern of the Doomed, I limp back up the stairs and down two halls to Gertrud. She refreshes me with warm mineral water in a little paper cup. I tell her she may as well go-- it's a long-term campout downstairs. She gives me German chocolates, God bless her, and leaves.
I rejoin Alan. We stand in line with pissed off people of all nations for over an hour. Our moment arrives. We describe the missing items to the only low-talking German ever born. Have I mentioned the lack of a/c, the official Teutonic indifference, and the heat yet?
We're home, but there's a catch. We can't leave the hot, stuffy apartment together. One of us must be in, to wait for "the call."
I worry about the huge, orange, 50-pounder--my pregnant carp on steroids. It houses souvenirs, a bike pump, a bike seat, a Kryptonite lock, clothes and shoes, mostly mine.
Each visit, I bring L.A. souvenirs to family and friends in Germany. On the return trip, I schlepp rye bread, lingonberry jam, and confections back to my mom in L.A. This year, everyone in Germany gets vitamins, raw nut meats from Trader Joe, Red Vines, baking accessories, See's pecan logs. That's IF the carp arrives.
By noon on Day #2, someone with the first initial A goes a little funny in the head, placing many outraged phone calls to key execs of AirBerlin. I suspect this lands our names on a Master Sh*t List, and further delays the arrival of our bags.
By mid-afternoon of Day #3, a tiny duffle and my boxed, disassembled bike are delivered. By 9:30PM, we have the pregnant carp.
We celebrate with a light meal at a local café. That's $40 for a salad for Alan, a side order of fried potatoes for me, and "two balls of chocolate ice-cream with egg-liquor." Alan wants to know if he gets to select the egg licker. The waiter doesn't get it. Thank God.
The remainder of the week is a Kafka nightmare of jet lag, 2AM hunger pangs and no regularity at all. Then the head colds kick in. These lay us low for the next five days.
Did we bring the head colds from L.A., or were they caused by the recycled air in the airplane? Everyone here wants to know, as they wipe down their gifts with hand sanitizer.
Beats me. I'm just glad the souvenirs are gone. A woman can breathe around here now. I fold one travel bag into another, like nesting Russian babushka dolls, until the bags and I land at LAX next month, bursting with German goodies.
But no German apples. Last year, the fruit-sniffing dogs of Minneapolis International Airport cured me of trying to sneak them in. As the canines and their uniformed handlers swoop toward the luggage conveyor belts at terrifying speeds, I bust a move to dump my apples in the ladies' restroom trash receptacle.
I smirk, standing at the carousel, while a hound drags his U.S. Department of Agriculture leash-holder past my bags to the john. Fooled them! Ha. After all, who wants a fruit-bearing felony on her permanent record?
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Writers obsess about such things as they draft, edit, research, and revise. One thing that helps me develop motivations for my characters is examining my own motivations. Why, in general, do I write? Why, in particular, am I writing this story? Why, specifically, have I chosen to write about this character and this plot?
When you go into business, you have to have a business plan. One item thing on that plan is your list of objectives—what will your business achieve in a given time period. The same planning is necessary when you go into the writing business, but, like everything in the writing business, objectives are going to be weirdly different from normal life.
Many writer goals are quantifiable: Sell x-number of books, blog every week, make y-amount of money. These are measurable objectives. At the end of the year, a writer can take a look at the numbers and see if the goals have been accomplished.
I would argue, however, that the most important goals are unmeasurable and infinitely more important.
As a teacher, I was constantly annoyed by administrators and legislators who demanded accountability—a guarantee that my students would learn. This is impossible to predict or measure. I don’t know about you, but for me a lot of what I learned in school made no sense whatsoever until I got out in the world. Then I found many instances when I was grateful to some nameless teacher for teaching me x, y, or z. But that teacher never knew and that knowledge was certainly never measured by a state test or a grade.
I truly believe we are here in this place, in this time to do two things—to teach and to learn. If you write you can’t help but learn—you learn how to write better stories, how to market your books, how to network, and so on. The real question is what are you going to teach? What are you here to share?
Writing advice abounds on the Interwebs but not much of it involves a writer’s real motivation to write. M.C. Beaton, a British writer who created the Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin series, responded to a similar question by saying, “I want to give someone a good time on a bad day.” To me that epitomizes why I write fiction. My stuff is funny, weird, and off-beat. It appeals to a particular kind of audience and I write to make them happy. To spread enjoyment is one of my goals—absolutely unmeasurable.
Another goal I have is to encourage tolerance—even more than tolerance—acceptance and joy in different cultures and people. I write about alternate beliefs, alternate lifestyles, alternate religions, the paranormal and the occult ( in the sense of unknown) for this reason. My characters are humans who simply live their lives in slightly abnormal—according to current cultural beliefs--ways. By showing these alternate aspects in action, I hope readers understand how we are all more alike than we are different and fighting amongst ourselves is a waste of time and resources. Will my books end world conflict? Probably not, but if just one person finds herself liking a character who personifies a different religion or lifestyle, I will have achieved my objective. Another ethereal and unmeasurable goal.
Writing should broaden minds, open people to new ideas, show the wonderful diversity in the Universe. The challenge of fiction is to do so in an entertaining way without falling into the trap of editorializing through the characters. I write about people who agree, who disagree, who are prejudiced in one way or another. Sometimes they see the light by the end; sometimes they don’t. Whether my readers get my point or not is, again, a mystery for the ages.
Those three absolutely undeterminable objectives are written in my business plan because they are the most important objectives to me. They guide my choices as I write and revise and develop stories and characters.
They are the real reasons I write.
Sunday, July 19, 2015
I don't know about other writers, but when I hear that sentence uttered as a preamble by someone I can neither knock unconscious nor outrun, I find it only slightly less frightening that "I've had the weirdest dream; it should be a movie." Sometimes it's not the person's whole life. Sometimes it's the antics of their child(ren), or an uncanny encounter involving a florist and an acrobat, or what they had to go through to get the insurance company to pay for their rather amusing accident with the piano, or homilies their grandmother used to share while cleaning her rifle. If you're a writer at some point someone is going to tell you about something in their lives.
I'm not talking about the "I've got a great idea for a story. You can write and we'll split the profits." people. I'm talking about the ones who really believe the world wants to hear about the unusual things their twins do with pineapples and Chihuahuas.
This happens more frequently when you become older and are not as able to gracefully evade as you once were. Not to mention the people talking to you tend to be older – and have more life behind them to talk about. You get used to making non-answer noises, recommending they Google guides to writing their memoirs and/or adept a feigning sleep until they go away.
Then once in a great while – or in my case, once in my lifetime (so far) – you meet someone whose life really has been interesting. Someone whose story you'd like to tell.
I flea market because my wife and daughter coupon. Not the four buggies full of groceries for 18¢ type extreme couponing you see on TV, but they're disappointed if they spend more than ten cents on the dollar. Couponing for them involves a dozen Sunday papers, six hours of planning, and organized folders of clipped coupons. Rather than let the house fill with boxes of products we don't really need, I hit the flea market every couple of weeks with a wide selection of hair dyes, shampoos, lotions, cleaning products, and whathaveyous for sale at half WalMart's price. For a guy who spends six to ten hours a day, six days a week, sitting alone in a room typing, meeting a few hundred folks I'd never see otherwise can make for a pretty diverting Saturday morning.
A flea market can become a village of sorts, with the regular vendors forming a casual community of gossip and tall tales. Which is how I came to know a guy a few years older than I (there are some) whom everyone calls Sarge. Sarge grew up in New York orphanages and foster homes, joined the Marines in time to spend several tours in Vietnam, became a street cop after retiring from the Corps, working in several major cities before finally retiring from the Miami force. Sarge loves the south, hates southerners, studies history on the internet, converses on forums in Vietnamese, and augments his various pensions by selling knives, stun guns, pellet rifles, and commemorative military paraphernalia at flea markets.
I dismissed the stories he told as tall tales until he challenged me to check one out on the internet. And it checked out. So. He knew I was a writer – another vendor had downloaded pirate copies of some of my work and confirmed my claim. Sarge doesn't give a damn about fiction, but he's fascinated by first-hand accounts of historical events and it didn't take long for our conversations to segue into discussions about me writing down the things he'd seen and been part of.
Of course I've never done anything like this. A quick survey of the many "we'll help you write your memoirs" sites revealed they were all vanity operations designed to make money off the mark. (Excuse me, off the fascinating person whose life story they are uniquely qualified to immortalize.) I wanted to call everyone to whom I'd ever mentioned these sites and apologize.
However, there are resources out there, guides to conducting interviews and the like, and many examples to which we could refer in figuring out how to move forward. Sarge was surprised there are contracts for this sort of work, but saw the wisdom of spelling everything out, and we've worked out the ground rules and general shape of the finished project. I've even upgraded my recording equipment (it's getting hard to find cassettes these days, anyway).
At this point I have no idea how we'll get through this, or whether "this" will result in a manuscript anyone will buy, but it has all the earmarks of an interesting journey.
If nothing else, the next time someone tells me how interesting their life has been, I'm going to listen to at least the end of the sentence before pretending to fall asleep.
Friday, July 17, 2015
Perhaps it’s a genre or non-fiction topic that really grabs you, or is otherwise right in your wheelhouse. You can already feel yourself conjuring ideas for a story or essay or news article. Maybe you’re ready to start typing, when you get to that one part of the ad or e-Mail that brings everything to a screeching halt:
“We can’t pay for content at this time, but you’ll get great exposure.”
Hear that? It’s the sound of air escaping your little balloon of hope.
Creatives of every stripe—writers, artists, musicians—have heard this line at least once. “Write for the exposure.”
As the saying goes: “You can die from exposure.”
Why is this so prevalent? How is it that so many people who seem to be in “business” to publish something in print or online can get away with it? Simple: Their approach works. There are writers, artists, musicians, and every other flavor of creative type you care to name who are so desperate to be read, seen, or heard that they’ll leap at any opportunity that presents itself. They’ll happily give of themselves for the “promise” of something down the road. The trouble is that most of these roads are usually dead ends.
Don’t fall into that trap. Don’t write for “exposure.” Don’t write for free.
Now, no sooner do I declare something like that than I’m ready to hit you with at least a couple of exceptions. This blog, for example, is a thing we do because we were asked nicely by Liane and Kevin (I promised I wouldn’t bring up the blackmail. Wait. What?).
Elsewhere, I answer occasional requests to write something for a charitable endeavor, and any money made is donated to that cause. With “crowdfunding” through sites like Kickstarter becoming more common, I’ve participated in one or two writing projects funded through such efforts where I might see a little money on the back end. Then there’s the thing where I just want to be a part of it because it seems just so gosh-darned* fun. In all of these cases, the requests come from friends I trust; and who are on a very short list of people for whom I’d do anything, no questions asked.
(* = Look at Dayton, keeping his potty mouth at bay. Isn’t that precious?)
“Are there any other exceptions?” you might ask. That’s something every writer or other creative type will have to decide for themselves. For me, it usually involves my owing somebody money or a blood debt, or perhaps they have photographic proof that I’m having a torrid affair with Shania Twain or Carla Gugino, but that’s it.
Everybody else? Get out your checkbook.
Now, the rate of payment is open to discussion, of course. You can’t expect a small or independent press to be able to front you the sort of advances one might see from a traditional publishing house, but whenever I hear someone say, “Well, we just weren’t able to budget for writers,” this sets off a red flag for me. It’s not that they couldn’t fit writers into their budget; it’s that they consciously opted not to do so, and why? Remember that paragraph I have up above, which starts with “Why is this so prevalent?” Boom. There you go.
The idea that a publication can “budget” for everything except the people who provide the very content that gives them a reason for being is laughable. Indeed, the notion that they’re happy to make money from your work, but don’t see a need to pay you for your services, is insulting. To make matters worse, some of these outfits have the audacity to request or even demand you sign over all rights as part of doing business with them. All rights to your work, for free.
This isn’t my own blog, so I’m restraining myself from describing for you what I really think of such people. If any of them happen to be reading this, just know that I think your business model sucks. Do better.
The simple rule for writers: If they’re making money, you should be making money. The amount is negotiable, but you should demand your fair slice of what you’re helping them earn.
Okay, now come on: Everyone has stories about this sort of thing. What are yours?