Sunday, November 22, 2015

Location, schmocation

In the real estate industry, there are three important watchwords: location, location, and location. Publishing, it appears, is not quite that geo-fixated. Let me illustrate. When most people think of the Caribbean, this is what they picture...

Maracas Beach, Trinidad, West Indies
...and this does in fact exist, many times over. This particular beach is a 45 minute drive from my home in Trinidad, at the butt end of the Caribbean. [see illustration of butt end below]

Map of Caribbean illustrating butt end, aka Trinidad
When I first got serious about writing for publication in the late 1990s, my location mattered a lot. The Internet existed but accessing it was a slow, tedious process that involved dial-up modems and, if one did not own a computer, long hours spent twiddling one's thumbs in Internet cafes waiting for a single web page to load one [minutes pass] thin [more minutes pass] line [maybe I should step outside and get some fresh air] at [sigh...they need to fix the AC in here] a time [damn and half hour is up!].

So, I got info on publishers and literary agents from a friend who printed out a few pages for me now and then, and from magazines like Writers Digest which advised me to invest in a monstrous telephone book-like tome called Writers Market that was published every year and was out of date before it hit the shelves. I bought it anyway. Back then no one was accepting queries by e-mail so I became familiar with SASEs--self-addressed stamped envelopes--and IMCs--international mailing coupons--all of which were a pain in the assets. I had to acquire rolls of US stamps to stick on the envelopes, figure out how many I should put, wait months--and usually in vain--for a response, etc.

I did not do much querying back then, and no wonder. More than six years of inactivity passed between my first flurry of queries and my second.

The second bout of querying, at the bottom end of 2005, began in much the same vein, but then I discovered the website AgentQuery, a database of agents that could be sorted in various ways, including by those who accepted e-queries. I sent out the first e-batch in the first week of January 2006 and got several responses immediately, four of which requested my full manuscript. Printing out the 420 page monster plus synopsis times four cost me money I could ill afford: photocopying was expensive here in Butt End.

Two months after I sent out those first e-queries...I had an agent and let me tell you, no milestone in publishing has thrilled me, literally bringing me to my knees, like that day the agent called with her offer of representation. This was BIG, I thought at the time. Susan had sold The English Patient, one of my favorite films, to Miramax, and Holes to Disney, and repped Julia Cameron and Jonathan Safran Foer. This wasn't just good; it was stratospheric.

"I have to tell you--I'm in Trinidad," I told her haltingly, thinking of her telephone bill.

"That's okay," she responded. "We have clients all over the world." I said it before and I'll say it again: this was my kind of agent. She sold the book some months later.

Over the years my location has become less and less relevant to my publishing life. High-speed, wireless net access caught up with Trinidad and with me, as did lightweight laptops, netbooks, tablets and phones that are way too damned smart. Self-publishing platforms such as KDP, D2D and Smashwords, as well as social media utilities like Blogger, Facebook, Twitter etc. also helped to shrink my world and give me near instant access to everything and everyone I needed. My network of writers and readers is modest by some measures, but far outstrips the reach I could even have imagined back in 1997 when I bought that Brother electronic typewriter and converted my tiny scrawl on piles of legal notepads into a readable manuscript.

There are still downsides to my location in Trinidad: the popular conventions, workshops, retreats and book fairs are too far away and thus too expensive for me to attend. I seldom meet my online writer people in person--I've met only one to date, actually. But I don't complain. I have consolations, like writing retreats on the coast with local writer friends who are a lot like me. Writers. Dreamers. Thinkers. Just like every other kindred writing spirit I've found around the globe.

I now have 29 titles (two novels, several novellas and a slew of novelettes) out there in the world under a variety of pen names and in several genres. With the exception of the first novel, I managed every aspect of their publication myself. And I've done it from right here on my little rock at the butt end of the Caribbean. You asked about my location? Location, schmocation!

Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad & Tobago
~Liane Spicer

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living and Writing in the Cape Fear

In rejecting a story of mine a British editor once wrote that if I was serious about writing horror I needed to "get away from that sunny southern coast and spend a few Februaries in the Midlands." After Googling "February in the Midlands" I decided to quit writing horror.

Odds are you've seen a lot of Wilmington without realizing it. Or at least the Cape Fear, as the southeastern corner of North Carolina, where Wilmington is located, is known locally. (The way I heard it, the British naval officer charged with charting this bit of the North Carolina coast in 1662 wanted to call the area "Cape Fair" – but after a few attempted colonies failed tragically the name was updated.) The film industry came to the Cape Fear in the 1980s. One website I checked lists over 300 movies and TV series have been shot here in the last thirty years. Films like Firestarter, Weekend at Bernie's, Bedroom Window, Amos & Andrew, and Iron Man 3; TV shows that have tangled local traffic include: Dawson's Creek, Homeland, Matlock, One Tree Hill , Revenge, Revolution, Sleepy Hollow, and Under the Dome.
[When I was a school teacher I earned money in the summers working as an extra. I'm seen from behind, lost in the crowd, or just out of the frame in seven movies and twelve episodes of three TV series. However, my face does appear in episode seven of Stephen King's Golden Years and peering over Brian Kerwin's shoulder several times during minutes 15-19 of King Kong Lives.]

My wife Valerie and I did not come to Wilmington for the film industry. In fact, other than my summer jobs and the traffic problems, the film industry had no direct impact on our lives. However, movies and a couple of hurricanes did change the city and its culture profoundly – which in turn affected our family.

We came here thirty years ago because of a career opportunity gave us a choice of relocating to one of three cities: Fayetteville, Jacksonville, and Wilmington. A Marine base, an Army base, or a quiet coastal town of about 50,000. Our first child had just turned two and the town on the coast sounded like the best place to raise a family.

What we did not research before moving was the racial tensions in Wilmington. When we moved to the Cape Fear in 1982, we found a beautiful city between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean that had great beaches, wonderful weather, cheap houses, and the unshakable conviction that the year was 1952. Our first house was a craftsman fixer-upper in a predominantly black neighborhood not too many blocks from the river and withing walking distance of the alternative school where I taught.

Schools had not integrated until the 1970s (15 years
after it became federal law) and out of that turmoil came the Wilmington 10 – nine black men and a white woman who had been falsely convicted (and a decade later exonerated) of arson and assault. Seventy-some years before, in 1898, Wilmington, NC, was the site of the only coup d'etat in American history. Up until 1898 Wilmington was 2/3 black and was a progressive, racially mixed business and political community. That was when an organized army of 2,000 white supremacists executed a carefully planned reign of terror and – in the course of a few days – overthrew the elected government, set black neighborhoods and businesses ablaze, murdered between twenty-five and ninety "troublesome" black citizens, and drove middle class black families, black professionals, and whites who supported the black community out of the city.
[In the 1980s I became friends with Jerry Jacobs, seated far right in the picture, and was a pall bearer at his funeral. In 1998 Valerie and I were part of the 1898 Centennial Commission's "Wilmington Black and White" week of commemorative events; we conducted a seminar on racially blended families and interracial relationships.]

The aftermath of the 1898 uprising formed Wilmington's culture for the next century. It led to the resistance and violence surrounding desegregation and, at least during our first decade here, shaped how people responsed to our family. There was in Wilmington a sharp and uncrossable demarcation between white and black; between haves and have nots.

In 1984 Firestarter, the first of several Stephen King movies shot in Wilmington, put the Cape Fear on the map for major studios looking for a fresh, non-union, location. The studios began expanding and various support and ancillary companies appeared. At the time there was no pool of local workers with the skills they needed, so they began importing their own people from California – people who didn't give a damn about Southern "traditions" like racism (and expected restaurants to serve something other than barbeque, pancakes, or Calabash seafood). I don't think they were unaware of the color line, they just chose to completely ignored it – and with the amount of money they were infusing into the local economy, their behavior was more than tolerated.

In 1996 the Cape Fear was devastated by two hurricanes that hit back-to-back: Bertha and Fran. People came from all over the country to help – particularly from coastal and eastern Texas, where they were familiar with cleaning up after hurricanes. Many of these people liked what they saw (Have I mentioned how beautiful the region is?) and decided to bring their families here and settle down. Between the summer of '96 and the 2000 census, the Hispanic presence in the population in the Cape Fear went from <1% to 5%. In the 2010 census it was 10%.

The most immediate impact of Bertha and Fran on our family was flooding – not just inundating our house, though that was serious, but the swarms of Norwegian wharf rats trying to escape the rising river. As soon as we got our house back in shape to sell, we moved out of the city to an unincorporated rural area of blueberry and strawberry farms known locally as Ogden. Our house was the first in what is now a housing development and the only strawberry farm left is a pick-your-own tourist attraction.
When we moved here in 1982 there were just under 50,000 people in Wilmington and not quite 100,000 in New Hanover County as a whole. Today, thanks to the film industry and those two hurricanes, the populations are nearly 80,000 and over 200,000, respectively. The old guard of Wilmington, the racists, the southerners, still fight being dragged into the twenty-first century tooth and nail. They aren't yet the minority politically, but they are no longer the driving economic force of the region and they know – despite recent Tea Party advances – that in the long run it's a losing battle.

So how does this environment, my thirty-three years in the Cape Fear, influence my writing? Seeing a city, a region, a way of life, go through such a fundamental sea change, having been part of that change, inspires and informs my fascination with cultures in transition and with how individuals and communities cope with – and either reject or find common ground with – the Other. These themes in turn shape what I write about and how I write about it. Would I be a writer living anywhere else? Certainly. I just wouldn't be the writer I am today.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Adopted Hometown

As you've no doubt surmised by this point, we're doing a bit of a theme thing here during the month of November. This time around, we're all writing about where we live.

Me? I live in Kansas City, and it's a pretty cool time to be doing that sort of thing.

Our baseball team won the World Series. The website Money Under 30 recently ranked us 10th on a list of cities for young college graduates looking for a decent place to live and make some good money. If you ask me about the nine cities ahead of us? Boooooooooooooring.

Kansas City is where it’s at.

I’m not a native, you understand. Though I’ve now lived here just about half my life, I’m still a transplant. If you’d asked me thirty years ago where I’d be living as I plunge headlong toward my 50th birthday, I’d likely have responded with something like one of the coasts, or Hawaii. I might even have said that I’d probably end up somewhere near the city of my birth, Tampa, Florida.

How does one go from the Sunshine State to the Show Me State? An extended tour in the military coupled with simple fate and circumstances saw to it that I ended up here. To be honest, I arrived thinking I’d do my two or three year assignment before shipping off to some other, more interesting locale. Then, I opted to leave the service for civilian life, and Kansas City became my home. That was twenty-odd years ago, now.

I love living here.

It took me a while to figure that out, of course. Going from being able to swim outside almost year-round and not even own a winter coat required some getting used to, after all. However, Kansas City found a number of ways to help me cope with the transition. For one thing, there’s a lot to do, here. Museums, parks, art galleries, and theaters out the wazoo. Did you know that we have the only nationally recognized museum dedicated to the First World War? It’s located right across the street from my favorite building in the entire city, Union Station.

For another thing, we throw a mean party, as some of you probably saw after the Kansas City Royals won the World Series a few weeks ago. The Power & Light District has transformed a once derelict downtown into a thriving entertainment hot spot, and the Country Club Plaza boasts some of the finest restaurants and upscale shopping opportunities, if that’s your thing. In addition to the top-tier entertainment venue that is the Sprint Center, we also have the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which is a truly stunning feat of architecture that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Inside that beautiful building we have the world-class Kansas City Symphony, which performs everything from classical concerts to providing live musical accompaniment to the recent Star Trek films.

You may have heard that we have some decent barbecue. It’s true. Believe the hype. Beyond that, we also have a tremendous number of restaurants, from elegant dining to the best grub a short order cook can toss at you on a paper plate. If you leave this town hungry, it’s your own fault. Seriously.

The city and its various landmarks serve as inspiration for a number of my stories. I just recently finished a science fiction tale that’s set in 1960s KC. I once wrote a story set in Union Station, while sitting in Union Station. I wrote the whole thing longhand while eating at one of the cafes.

It doesn’t hurt that we have a thriving creator community here. Writers, artists, photographers, name it, somebody’s making it here, somewhere. Attending local and regional conventions has linked me with a cabal of wonderful creative types, particularly in the writing fields. Best-selling authors like Gillian Flynn and Jim Butcher have connections to our fair town, and some of the hottest talent working in comics today calls the Kansas City area home.

We even have Hallmark Cards headquartered here, for crying out loud. How cool is that?

And yet, even after all of that, to this day I still cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Oh sure, I’ll root for the Chiefs, but the Bucs have always been my team.

Do I miss Florida? Absolutely. I still have family there, and there are times when I think maybe I should have moved back, but Kansas City is where I hang my hat.

I do so loving here.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Change of Scene

I have lived in two states in the U.S. soon to be three. I grew up in Montana but moved to California just before starting 7th grade. Needless to say California was a huge change from the Midwest and not a particularly positive one.

I came to like California a little more over the years and appreciate the opportunities it afforded me. I was able to do a lot that I never would have been able to from Montana, like going to San Diego Comic Con, two World Fantasy cons, and anime conventions.

But I have never written about the area where I live. When anyone outside of California (and even many of those in CA) think of the state it generally breaks down to San Francisco and Hollywood. That's the only thing that anyone associates with the state. I live very far from those two places in the Central Valley. Which people don't think of except for the occasional joke about Fresno or Bakersfield cropping up in TV, film or books. One of the lines I remember was basically "Fresno is somewhere you end up" it's not a place people go to voluntarily.

In a month however I'm moving to new state which I've never been to. Oregon. I am looking forward to leaving behind the small town I live in which is very isolating. I have one local writer friend- our very own Sunny Frazier (who DOES write about this area)- but we write very different genres.

And despite my dislike for where I live in CA, I am wondering if time and distance will soften my perspective. Perhaps, someday, despite all my opinions that 'nothing ever happens here', I will one day set an Urban Fantasy novel or a children's book  in the Central Valley where I used to live.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

L.A. to Atlanta - And Still I Write

I am a transplant from Los Angeles to Atlanta. I will admit that my heart will always be in L.A., though I've lived in Atlanta for 10 years, and I appreciate the benefits of living in the south. The cost of living is way better, and two of my children and their families are here, even though I still have a son and his family in L.A.  For the latter reason, I do at times feel torn between the two cities. When I'm in L.A., I yearn to move back. It calls to me like an old lover - the smell, look and feel of it all are so familiar and so comfortable. And trust me, I will always be a Laker girl at heart. But when I arrive in Atlanta and see the cost of living differences, and the roots I've set up here, I'm glad I'm here. It's still new to me, it's a challenge, and I found my true love here in my forever mate. But oh how great it would be to be in two places at one time. Two Places at One Time - a title?

Born and raised in L.A., with my dad being a well-known musician and my mom being an actress, I was exposed to the entrainment lifestyle early on, as the Beach Boys and Sammy Davis Jr. would often come to our home and I would go to the recording studio with my father. Later, when I was four years old, my parents opened a dress shop and a restaurant in L.A, and later, after they divorced, my mom opened a gym and several real estate offices. They were never the 9-to-5 types. They were very creative, type-A for sure, and they definitely had entrepreneurial spirits. And as such, I took after them, becoming a model, commercial actress, talk show host, TV news reporter, etc., and then, eventually, at the age of 40, I found my true gift - writing.

I sat down to write my life story in 1998, and one year later, I turned what was to have been non-fiction, into a fiction novel called May December Souls. I shopped it and was rejected dozens of times, but after talking to Michael Baisden who suggested that I self-pub my book, I did just that and released it in 2000. By 2001 I had an agent and a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Since then I have written over twenty titles (which includes novellas, anthologies, and titles under my pen names). I have not looked back. 2018 will mark a 20 year milestone in my career. Time flies when you find your passion!

After moving from L.A. to Atlanta, I found that a lot of true readers in the south are more likely to come to an author event than in celebrity-driven California. A lot of those who came to my events in Cali were my supportive friends. Also, when I'm on tour, most of my events are on the east coast. The cost of travel from the ATL is less expensive than flying to say NY from L.A. or to Florida from L.A. What I do love about L.A. is that because I was born and raised there, and I know a lot of people, some business owners and friends are very accommodating about setting up events and showing up when I'm in town.

Most of my titles are set in L.A. and Atlanta, though I have titles that are set in Florida, Nevada, and internationally as well. My next title will be set in both Texas and Alabama.

The bottom line is that wherever I am, whichever city I live in, my love of writing makes itself at home in my heart, and that's what's important. But I'm old enough and wise enough to know that what's most important is the love of family and friends. Wherever I end up, I will serve my purpose for being born: which is to make a difference, love and be loved, and reach one, teach one by giving back.

And yes, you can take this girl out of California, but you cannot take California out of this girl, lol! Any transplants out there?

Happy Writing!!

Monday, November 2, 2015

What's Location Got to Do with it?

I live in Baltimore. I know what you’re thinking…The Wire, The Riots, burnt out buildings, murder capital. I’m in the county, not the city, but even then there’s much more to Baltimore than that.

Baltimore, however, is not what readers on this blog associate me with. That’s because I’m always talking of that tiny guitar shaped island nestled in the Eastern Caribbean. St. Kitts. I spent the first 24 years of my life there. It is home. It will always be home. Some of the views I had from my veranda included lush green mountainsides in the center of the island, gently sloping to the serene azure Caribbean Sea.  Blue skies across which sailed puffy white clouds, and endless golden sun kissed the melange of trees waving in the warm sea breeze.
Here I was inspired to write much prose, mostly in a dialect of English with no formal written format. So how did I end up in Baltimore?  While you don’t have a choice in where you are born, people think you have a choice in where you live out your adult life. I don’t believe that. Where we live is chosen for us by education, employment, family, and love, just to name a few.

I left my little piece of paradise to pursue an education, because as beautiful as the island is, there were no
Universities on the island at that time. After a brief stint in the US Virgin Islands, I moved to Brooklyn, New York. The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. No mountains, no beach, no cluster of trees (at least where I lived). After 4 years of 3hr commutes underground in a subway, of leaving in the dark and returning in the dark for 4 months of the year, I couldn’t take it another minute. I moved the Charlottesville Virginia to pursue a doctorate.

I was enamored with Charlottesville. It was countryside, with endless trees, beautiful greenery and stunning architecture and lots of history. Most of all, everything I needed was within a one mile radius of my dwelling place; no 3 hour commute (Yeah!). However within two weeks I had seen all there was to see, done all there was to do in Charlottesville (except skiing, snowboarding, white water rafting , hunting and drinking myself to oblivion at the many bars on The Corner, all of which didn’t interest me in the least). I was bored. The good news, it was a great place to focus on my dissertation research and keep fit.

When I received my PhD, after many years of a long distance engagement, and 3 years of a long distance marriage, I finally moved to Maryland to be with my husband.  The suburb of Baltimore County was my happy medium. Just twenty minutes outside the city meant our work commute was pretty short. Besides it allows us access to the many things Baltimore City has to offer. Yes there are burnt out buildings, yes there are pockets of high crime areas in the city, but there is so much more to Baltimore City. There’s the beautiful Inner Harbor with National Aquarium and Science Center, and Port Discovery Children’s Museum which is perfect for families with children. There are lots of arts and literary festivals, a writer’s dream. There is Peabody, the academy for the arts, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and many theaters where live performances could be seen and so much more. Unlike Charlottesville, there is enough cultural diversity to satisfy every palate.

But when I leave the city, I return to my sleepy suburban community where the streets are empty at nights, where little ghost and goblins, superheroes and princesses go trick-or-treating on Halloween, where lawns are elaborately decorated at Christmas (and just about every holiday). There isn’t an Ocean close by, but we are at the gateway of the Chesapeake. If boating was my thing (it’s not) I could walk to any of several mariners across the street and sail into the Chesapeake.

What I love the most about where I live is the parks. I go jogging/walking most morning in the park nearby. Other people walk their dogs and we have inadvertently formed a community. If a person is missing we wonder where that person is. I look around at the trees especially during the fall and spring with the blaze of colors and I am inspired.

So, how did living in all those places affect my writing? It didn’t. In St. Kitts, I found inspiration in the scenery, the people, and the culture. In New York, I found inspiration in people of all cultures and tongues riding the trains daily. In Charlottesville, I found inspiration in the greenery and the outdoors, and in Baltimore I find inspiration in all kinds of things.

Face it, whether you have a mountain vista, a sea view and trees in galore, or a brick wall, most of us write in an enclosed room facing only a computer, surrounded by four walls. So what does location have to do with writing? Not a darned thing.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Leave a Writer's Voice Alone

by Velda Brotherton

One of the worst things editors or critique groups can do is change a writer’s voice. So how do we recognize the difference in weird or poor writing and a unique voice? It’s not always easy. In fact many authors are not truly sure they have a distinctive voice.

Several qualities go to make up voice. One, of course, is a specific style we use to tell our stories. And we develop that style from childhood. Our mothers sang to us and told us stories. Our fathers recited tales of their own growing up. From the time we are very small we are developing a way of relating the way we communicate. Long before some of us become writers we have developed a specific voice.

Once we’ve decided we want to be writers, we are aware of the way we like to tell our stories. By then the rhythm we use is like a song. Of course there are specifics we have to learn to polish our writing, to make sure we are telling exciting stories. We learn to add conflict, to form scenes and sequels, to create characters and use all five senses, to add description sparingly within the action. These things can be taught.

The one thing that can’t be taught is the craft itself. Those who are talented, are creative, have vivid imaginations, and develop that unique voice, can learn to follow and eventually break the rules.

Our critique group has been around for 28 years or so, and we have helped a lot of novice writers hone their craft, polish their talent, and get published. One rule we always have tried to follow is never try to make every writer sound alike. In other words, allow them to write in their own beautiful voice.