Sunday, October 31, 2010

Guest author Carleen Brice: One Writer's Journey

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of the hero’s journey as a way to describe my own journey as a writer.

The hero’s journey, as you probably know, is based on Joseph Campbell’s work looking at archetypes in mythology and folklore. Basically, he found many common themes in all stories. The common characters we see over and over. A hero. A mentor. An ally (like a sidekick). A villain, or shadow, etc. And he identified why we see these same things over and over. What they mean to our collective memory and mind—the subconscious reasons we gravitate to them over and over. Many others have modeled their writing on it and have taught other writers of fiction and screenplays to do the same. You see the hero’s journey format used in movies a lot.

If you haven’t, I recommend reading Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey and Robert McKee’s book Story. Or just go straight to the source and read The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.


The call to adventure to write a novel came a couple of months after 9/11—like many, the terrorist attacks made me think about my own mortality. As I was thinking about how I wanted to spend my time, I was driving down the street and heard a voice talking about when she first moved to Denver. Listening to her, I realized she was a character in a novel and I had had an idea for a mother-daughter story and I felt like she was the mother in the story. So I went home and wrote down what I had heard and accepted her call immediately and decided right then and there I was writing a novel.

In the vernacular of the hero’s journey she was the Herald. Vogler writes that the role of the Herald is to “announce the need for change. Something deep inside us knows when we are ready to change and sends us a messenger.” I love that my messenger was one of the characters in my story.


There’s something called the “special world,” in the hero’s journey. It’s when Dorothy leaves Kansas. When Luke leaves his Uncle’s farm. In my first novel Orange Mint and Honey, it’s actually the home my character returns to. The character is Shay and her mother was an alcoholic when she was growing up. Now she is sober. The two women have been estranged for years and Shay hits tough times and has to return home. Home is not what she expected though. Her mother Nona is healthy and well. The house is clean and well-tended. The refrigerator is full of healthy food. The biggest thing is the garden. Nona’s garden is a healing space that becomes the special world of my novel.

In the writer’s journey, the special world is the world of publishing. And what almost every writer I know is wishing for.

I’ve had many amazing experiences in the special world. Letters from fans. Meeting writers I’ve always admired. Terry McMillan emailed me out of the blue to say she liked my work and was recommending it! Alicia Keys blogged about Orange Mint and Honey on her website and had her fans read it!

Probably the most special part of the special world was going to Vancouver to be on the set of Sins of the Mother, the Lifetime movie version of Orange Mint and Honey. I got to be an extra. I got to be in a movie scene that was almost word for word as I had written it in my novel. You want to talk about surreal and out of body! And I get to have that forever, and it is a special and wonderful thing and I hope you all get to experience the fun and validation of having someone else read your work and love it. Someone else read your work and let you know that it meant something to them.

Entering the special world really is when you feel like a hero in your own story.

But here’s the thing about the special world: the special world, while full of wonders, is also full of trials.


Vogler: “Heroes don’t always land gently. They may crash in the other world, literally or figuratively. The leap of faith may turn into a crisis of faith as romantic illusions about the special world are shattered by first contact with it. A bruised hero may pick herself up and ask, “Is that all there is?” The passage to the special world may be exhausting, frustrating or disorienting.”

My first novel won two awards, got only good reviews, was #1 on the Denver Post bestseller list, was a Target breakout book and had many other honors. It was made into a Lifetime movie. Sales were okay.

Unfortunately, my second novel Children of the Waters hasn’t done as well. Publishers Weekly didn’t like it much. Though plenty of other publications did, the PW review is the one that sits on And sales have been slower that I would wish.

I’ve lost friendships—people who I genuinely thought were my friends couldn’t take what looked to them as shining success.

Others have been snippy about me online.

What I’ve learned not only from experience but from other writers is that it doesn’t really get easier. The writing doesn’t get easier. You still have to learn how to write each new book. The business doesn’t get any easier. With success comes raised expectations and with those raised expectations come fears of failing.

And even with a record-breaking movie and award-winning novel under my belt I still have to prove myself.

Vogler says: “The credentials of experience may have to be presented repeatedly at successive rungs of power. When delayed by obstacles heroes do well to get acquainted with their fellow adventurers and learn of their hopes and dreams.

I’m sharing this all with you not to dash your hopes. In fact, I want to encourage you: if I can do it, you can do it. But I want you to know something that Anne Lamott talks about in Bird By Bird. She writes:

“All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings, which is about the first Jamaican bobsled team. The coach is a 400 pound man who had won a gold in Olympic bobsledding 20 years before but has been a complete loser ever since. The men on his team are desperate to win an Olympic medal, just as half the people in my classes are desperate to get published. But the coach says, ‘If you aren’t enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.’ You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk.”

What Vogler says is: “It’s good for heroes to go into the main event in a state of balance, with confidence tempered by humility and awareness of the danger.”

The next time you get a rejection, think of it this way: “Resistance can be your greatest source of strength. Ironically, what seems to be villains fighting for our death may turn out to be forces ultimately working for our good.”

To be continued.
Join Carleen Brice here on Novel Spaces on November 8 for Part 2 of One Writer's Journey.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Dreaded Deadline

There is nothing that can get you worked up more as a writer than the dreaded deadline for turning in a book. Though most editors are flexible and understanding if you are a few days or even a couple of weeks late, many expect you to be right on the money with your book and few excuses will do.

I usually approach the deadline the way I would a date for going on a trip to Hawaii, which I often do and have mapped out well in advance. I make sure I take it seriously enough to have my things in order as the day nears. This means I step up my writing, revising, reading, and more revising as the clock ticks, pushing aside things I might have done otherwise, and essentially stick to the script with few distractions till I have completed the project to my satisfaction.

As such, when the date of delivery arrives, I am able to breathe a deep sigh of relief and push send as the manuscript whisks across the high speed Internet in the blink of an eye. My editor then tells me simply, "Thanks," as if the process was smooth as silk.

I then pat myself on the back for yet another job well done and then maybe have some champagne to celebrate, take a few days to regain my bearings, and then it is back in the saddle again for another looming deadline and the normal process of going through the motions to make sure it happens. My editor then is happy, I am happy, and hopefully the readers will be happy too once the finished product is in print and on sale.

How do you approach the dreaded deadline? Are you usually on time? Or often late?

Is your editor understanding? Or can being late put you in the doghouse?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Singing in a strange land

I have been living in Ghana for ten months now. My friends and fans are always asking me, when will you write a story based in Ghana. I never voiced this answer, but in my heart, the answer has been "never". I remember the psalmist's words: "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land". I felt that I could not write a story based on a place that was foreign to me in very fundamental and complicated ways.

I can write about my experiences here, then I would certainly be forgiven for any ignorance of customs. But to incorporate fictitious characters into the landscape, I felt that I needed to understand Ghana much more than is possible in my three year stay.

That changed this weekend. We visited the second largest city in Ghana, Kumasi which is the seat of the Ashanti tribe in Ghana. We went to several museums and learnt much about the rich heritage, customs and beliefs of this proud tribe. On the long drive home, in an effort to entertain the children, I (with their help) created a story based around one of the beliefs that we had heard. I still need to do considerable research, but I think it is the start of something new!

(The photo is of the current Ashanti King seated next to the Ashanti Golden Stool, a sacred part of the Ashanti history)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lucid Dreaming

I’ve posted before about lucid dreaming. On my own blog. Lucid dreaming is when you consciously realize that you’re dreaming. Not everyone experiences such dreaming, but most folks have had at least one or two lucid episodes. I’ve actually had a lot of them, and I thought I’d post on the topic here at Novel Spaces. I’ve used my dreams often for inspiration in my writing, and lucid dreaming allows you to “experience” a story in a new way.

Lucid dreaming actually comes in two types. In the first type, you become aware that you are dreaming but can do nothing but observe the events that are unfolding. In the second type, you become aware that you are dreaming and can actually manipulate the dream. When I do become lucid during dreams, I am generally capable of the second type, of manipulating the images. That can be a lot of fun. As you might imagine.

The thing I like to do most when I realize that I’ve gone lucid is to “fly.” Sigmund Freud believed that flying dreams signified anxiety. That’s nonsense. At least for me. Flying is incredibly exhilarating. As soon as I realize I’m dreaming, I take off running for the nearest high point and jump off; I spread my arms and soar like a raptor. I run because I know I have only moments left in which to fly. This is because lucid dreaming primarily occurs only toward the end of the dream cycle, when one is already starting to climb up through the dream toward wakefulness.

Personally, I find that I cannot completely rewrite a dream when I’m lucid, but have to mold or change the images that are already present. In a recent dream, for example, I was in the basement of a building when I became lucid. It would have been nice to just “transport” myself to a mountaintop and fly from there, but I’ve tried it and I can’t make it happen. Instead, I took off running up some stairs, found a corridor, raced along it to an outside door, flung open the door and leaped through into the air.

I’ve also tried at various times to recreate specific people in my lucid dreams. I might want to see Lana, for example. But I’ve found that I can’t build something from nothing. If I’m walking alone on a deserted highway, I can’t just “conjure” Lana to appear beside me. If there is another person there I can “transform” them into Lana fairly easily.

A couple of years back, while in a lucid dream, I decided I wanted to speak to my father, who has been dead since I was 13. I was standing just outside a forest and I tried to “force” my dad’s image to appear at the edge of the woods. I concentrated very hard, but what I got was not a person, only a sort of “lightness” against the dark background that was human shaped. Like a photographic negative. Yet, I sensed that it was my father and I could speak to him. For a brief moment I felt able to reach across the years and communicate with him as an adult, in a way I was never able to do while he was alive.

I still remember how sad it left me when the dream dissolved, like a floating bubble touching something sharp. I never fought harder to hold onto a dream. But it was a dream, and it ended as all dreams must. And today is the first time I’ve written about it. I’m not sure why, but maybe just because that’s what writers do.

Monday, October 25, 2010

My son is turning one this week and is not walking as yet. I would put him to stand and hold a toy for him to walk to me. He just laughed and flopped down, running to me on all fours. Three weeks ago he took two steps. I was encouraged, but that’s all he did. I chalked it up to fear and determined that he would walk in his own time, at his own pace, when he was ready. A few days ago, when I least expected it, he got up on his own and made five baby steps. He’s steadily increasing the number of steps as his confidence grows.

That whole affair reminded me of my own steps to overcome a big fear in my life and the baby steps I took and am still taking. I have a fear of driving, yet I drive every day. It’s the kind of fear that comes with palpitations, sweaty palms, lightheadedness and nausea.

I only discovered this fear seven years ago. Before that, I didn’t drive. I lived in the center of the capital city of a 68 sq. mile country. Everything I needed was within walking distance. When I came to the US I landed in the city with the best public transportation this side of the Atlantic. It was only when I moved to a university town with a pathetic transportation system beyond the university campus that I had the need for a car. And still I didn’t drive. I lived near the university, walked everywhere and utilized the university transit system, excellent for a one mile radius of the university. If I needed to travel outside the university, I waited until my husband, with whom I had a long distance marriage, visited.

Then I had a baby and things changed. After a winter of lifting a heavy stroller over snow heaps on the sidewalks, I decided the dust off my languishing driver’s license and get a car. That’s when I discovered, I was afraid of driving. So like my son, I took baby steps. I drove the car, on a local road with little traffic to the daycare, parked it, and walked to the university. I did that until I was comfortable enough to take the car into heavier traffic. After a while, the palpitations dissipated and I was driving as if it was second nature.

Even when I graduated and joined my husband in a suburb just outside a large city and had to drive in heavy traffic I was fine. As long as I took the local roads, I was fine. Unfortunately I can’t take local roads all the time. When I drove on the highway for the first time and the fear came back with a vengeance. My first impulse was to look for local routes anywhere I went or use my husband as a chauffeur. Instead, I decided to face my fears. I started off by taking the five minute stretch of highway between my workplace, and my daughter’s school. Eventually, the fear subsided on that stretch of highway. But if I go on the highway at any unfamiliar point, it comes back. I’m not fully over it, but I am getting there.
Just when I thought I was over my fear of driving, I got into an accident totaling my car (thank God I was not seriously hurt). I was terrified of driving again. I asked my husband to drive me to work the next day. He said no and instead made me get back behind the wheel and drive him to work, pick up the kids and then drive back to pick him up. He refused to let me give up, and it worked. Within a few days, I was back to driving with confidence, at least locally.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who have no fear of anything, this is probably not for you. But I know that there are many reading this who have some type of fear. Some are afraid of letting others read their work, or others are too afraid of rejection to submit their writing to an agent or publisher. To you I’ll say, make little baby steps.

So what steps have you made to overcome your fear?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Those darned publishing myths

We've all read them, and we start out with loads of misconceptions on account of them. How do we separate the industry wisdom from the urban myths? Research can usually turn up startling revelations, as can discussion with more experienced writers. There's nothing like personal experience, though, to drive the truths straight home. Here are a few urban myths of publishing, and my own experience in shooting them to smithereens.

Urban Myth #1: They say you can't get an agent unless you're already published, and you can't get published without an agent.

My experience: When I got my agent I had published squat. She wasn't a new agent looking to build her list; she had been in the business for 25 years, was highly respected and successful. Her clients include household names. Agents take chances on untried writers all the time. They just have to love your book enough.

Urban Myth #2: They say you must have publishing credits before an editor will take a look at your manuscript.

My experience: I had no pub credits when editors began asking for my full manuscript but hey, having those clips (from magazine sales, for example) can't hurt! Again, most editors consider the quality of the writing and their needs, not necessarily what and where you've sold before.

Urban Myth #3: They say the industry is incestuous and if you don't know someone it's hopeless.

My experience: I knew no one. The vast majority of authors don't when they're starting out. It's about the story, the writing, and the existence of a big enough market for what you write, not about having the right contacts.

Urban Myth #4: They say queries should be no longer than a single page.

My experience: I didn't know this when I was starting out and my first query was three pages long. An editor requested the full manuscript on my first try.

Urban Myth #5: They say if your romance novel is set in an 'exotic' country no publisher will buy it. As a matter of fact, a popular agent who didn't deign to respond to my query did a presentation at an RWA conference not long after I contacted her and said a foreign setting in a romance novel tops her auto-rejection list.

My experience: Café au Lait is set on a tiny Caribbean island. That's foreign to 99 percent of the market. The book sold, and the feedback from reviewers and readers indicates that the exotic setting is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. There are similar myths about other genres. They are not cast in stone.

'They' say lots of stuff. Very little of it really matters: what matters is that you write well, query widely, learn all you can about the industry, and persist. Would anyone decide to become a professional diver and proceed to suit up, jump in the water and start raking in the big contracts? Or would he learn all he can about the business, practise until he's pretty darned good at the underwater stuff, and then have reasonable expectations that he can grow with?

So, which publishing myths have you shot down lately?

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Power of Three

Recently a reader asked me for my opinion on why there are so many trilogies being published lately -- I have two answers, one short, one longer. You know me...

The first is financial. If an author’s books sell well, there’s nothing a publisher likes better than to have another book waiting in the wings to move onto shelves as soon as the initial sales of their first subside. The strategy seems to be to have new books come out within six months of each other, as my second did, which means that the old paradigm of taking a year to finish a novel is slowly being thrown out the window. That’s right, kids, your competition is now time -- the novelist who can produce good work faster -- i.e., readable and saleable, which doesn’t always mean the best writing -- is more appealing to a major publisher than a brilliant first novel with no guarantee of more.

If a publisher buys a trilogy and promotes it as such, it theoretically means that anyone who enjoyed the first book is a built in audience for the second and third. Since most book contracts are structured in step payments, publishers have no problem writing off any money paid on signature and stopping the ball before it rolls too far down the hill if the first book tanks. For them it’s a win-win situation -- not so much for the author who told everybody about a three-book deal that then goes the way of all things.

The second reason is aesthetic.

There has always been an attraction to the power of three. Off the top of my head I can cite the Holy Trinity that I was raised with as a Catholic -- Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The three witches in Macbeth, the three sisters in Aaron Spelling’s “Charmed”, three-eyed and three legged aliens in “War of the Worlds”, “The Tripods” series -- I could Google and find far more and better examples, but you get the point.

Almost any writing course will tell you that a good story has three elements - a beginning, middle and end. We talk of the three-act structure of plays, even of screenplays. Life is divided into past, present and future, with no side trips into parallel time or alternate dimensions. Bottom line, there is a magic and mystery to the number three that recurs frequently in literature and myth.

There's also something almost irresistible to taking on the challenge of writing a story so big it requires three parts to tell. It is a lure that can be as lethal as Ulysses' desire to hear the Siren's song, with equal risk of crashing to you doom on the rocks. When I started my first novel, “BITE MARKS: A Vampire Testament”, I didn’t plan for it to become a trilogy. That happened in the course of rewriting the first book, as I realized it had generated a valid continuation of the story. Book one took place in 1986/87 and involved a vampire baby that is “cured” by the end of the first book. Once I had that ending, I saw a second story that brought the baby, now human and approaching 21, back to New York to find out what happened to him all those years ago.

I was lucky in that the editor who bought the book saw the same potential, and bought the second book based on a half page description of what it would be. In the course of writing book two of what had become the first two novels of “The Vampire Testaments” at my editor’s suggestion, I had a choice -- cram everything that was coming up into one book that felt rushed, or break the story I saw remaining into two books, turning my first publication into the opening volley of -- yeah, yet another trilogy.

In all good conscience, I couldn’t cheat the characters or the readers with the former, so I wrote up enough details to see where the third book would go, and plunged ahead, counting on my editor to tell me I was crazy if the second book didn’t satisfy. She didn’t, and I am now hard at work on book three, with no contract, driven only by my need to know what happens next.

I did something unusual (I think -- I haven’t read everything, after all) in that each book of the trilogy is separated by a generation -- the first takes place in 1986/87, the second twenty years later in 2007, and the third will be set twenty years from now in 2028. My hope is that no one will assume the third is science fiction and shy away from it, or that first readers of the third will be disappointed in the first two for not having futuristic aspects. For the purposes of the story I am trying to tell I had to move forward in time for certain events to build to a boil. The third is more speculative fiction if anything, in that I am more concerned with social and moral changes than in how technology or science may have changed to affect us.

It does make for an interesting marketing issue, which I will address in future blogs. Publishing today is still struggling to deal with the question of how to effectively sell a book in the 21st century, when more books than ever are available, in more forms, and in more markets. My hope is that I’ll attract readers who like my characters, the way I tell stories, and my themes, and that, if done well, where or when they are set will be accepted without question.

When I realized that I’d thrown myself into a trilogy, as opposed to a series, (also popular with publishers today, though the Testaments will continue with individual novels), I took on the responsibility to end the third novel well, in a way that wrapped up the lives of the characters while leaving them open to future stories. I didn’t want to pad out a successful first story into two more, as the Matrix trilogy did so poorly, for seemingly no other reason than to milk the market.

In my opinion they destroyed the integrity of the first movie by the middle of the second, when Neo arbitrarily discards saving the real world to save his lover (named Trinity, ironic in the context of this essay) and then lies about it. Then they gave us a third movie that essentially reprised and expanded the action sequences of the first two and cranked them up until there was no room left for anything but more digital copies of the villains in motion. Consistency of plot, character or story were thrown out the window in a virtual orgy of hi-tech destruction driven more by Joel Silver’s action movie mentality than the intelligence of the Wachowskis that instigated the original idea.

For me, a trilogy is justified when it’s driven by an epic story that can’t be contained in anything smaller. The “Lord of the Rings” was a faux trilogy in that it was written as a massive single book the publisher cut into three parts for publication. Nonetheless, except for the abrupt close of the first two portions (I feel each part of a good trilogy should have a satisfying ending, even as it sets you up for the next), it tells an epic tale that couldn’t be told in fewer words.

The future of the trilogy will be determined by two things -- their effectiveness, how well they are written -- but first and foremost, their sales. If people keep buying trilogies, writers will keep writing them, and publishers will keep putting them out there. I will think twice before I launch into another. My only regret is that I didn’t pitch the first as a trilogy so that the publisher could have promoted it as such, but I am making clear that the story continues -- and ends -- with one more. After that I have at least two more tales to tell in my vampire lore, and a host of unrelated books to write, supernatural and otherwise.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In Praise Of Wire-bound Notebooks

Like many writers, I love office supplies. I can spend an hour wandering the aisles of Office Depot or Office Max, lusting after pens, paper cutters, and staplers—"Look! This one has a built-in staple remover!"—even though I have such things already.

One of my lusts, though, I can always indulge in because one can never have too many: wire-bound notebooks. They come in many colors and patterns and sizes; they come with tightly spaced lines, with more loosely spaced lines, with graph paper, or blank; some have pockets; some have dividers; the wire ring may be on the left, top (great for us lefties!), or right. There's a wire-bound notebook for every conceivable purpose, and obviously one needs to have one of each kind on hand, just in case!

Here's how I use them in my writing.
  1. Notes for novels. I start a fresh notebook for each novel. In it, I jot down title ideas, character ideas, plot ideas, timelines, lists of features of places or characters, maps, mind maps, and other aids to writing the book. Sometimes I also keep track of how many hours I work each day on that book and how many words I produced.
  2. Client contacts. I keep a notebook near the phone and use it to take notes when I have a phone meeting with a client or when a possible new client calls me to discuss a project. I write down the date and the client's name, email address, and phone number (even for existing clients). With this notebook, I can always find the details of a conversation quickly or remind myself of someone's name.
  3. Random jottings. I keep a smaller notebook in my purse so that any time I have an idea, I can write it down before I forget. I pull it out when I have a story idea, when someone recommends a book or a make-up or a costume supplier, when I see a book at the bookstore that looks interesting but I want to check whether I already have it, the name and email address of writers I meet, and various and sundry other notes.
  4. Conference notes. When I go to writers' conferences or sf/f cons, I see many people at the panels just listening to the speakers. If I did that, the information would disappear from my brain the moment I walked out the door. I have to reinforce what I'm hearing by writing it down and looking at it on the page. So I always carry a notebook at conferences to take notes in. (It also gives me a place to write down the time and location of parties people tell me about.) The notebooks with hard backs are particularly useful for notetaking without a desk.
  5. Blog ideas. I have a notebook dedicated to ideas for blog posts for those weeks in which I can't think of a topic.
  6. Word ideas. I have trouble making up alien words for sf/f stories. So I keep a little notebook in which I write down the words that pop up for word verification in blogs and Websites that have comment moderation enabled.
If you want to get really decadent, you can get personalized notebooks, such as the one at right, which I ordered and customized at Vistaprint. You can even create your own design from scratch and upload it to be put on a notebook cover at Vistaprint, Cafe Press, and presumably other online printing places.

How do you use notebooks to help you with your writing? Have I missed any valuable uses?

Thanks for stopping by today. I'll be blogging again on November 5, when I'll talk a little about the brainstorming technique of mind mapping.

—Shauna Roberts

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Let me tell you about my Dad.

Another column that's not about what I intended to write about.

I'm in the middle of researching West African cultures as I design the world for a series of original fantasy stories. Seemed a natural springboard for a column on the art and science of world building. (I've pretty well done writing outside your own ethnicity to death.)
Our youngest daughter and I have been having a lively ongoing debate on female detectives. Her thesis is that there are no good female private detectives that behave and think like women; the nature of the mystery genre is such that the female characters who are good PIs are good to the degree that they think and act like men. Not sure I agree with her, but her arguments are cogent and well-defended, and I considered cribbing them for a column of my own on the topic.
Seanan McGuire's recent LiveJournal entry on readers who confuse writers with their characters got me thinking about my friend Phaedra Weldon. In her first Zoe Martinique paranormal, her young, female lead says "There's nothing more vulnerable than a naked man." Phaedra's been identified as everything from a dominatrix to a lesbian since (yes, I know the two are not mutually exclusive). Her husband has been asked if he knows "the sort of things she writes." Seemed like fodder for a column of my own, but I lack authority on the topic, having never been victim of the practice. Not enough impressionable readers, I guess.
Jade Lee's column on sex in romance tempted me to write about the male perspective on such things. But I used up all my good ideas in my comment on her post.

So I decided to write about my father instead.
On Monday, October 4th, I dropped by my Dad's home and discovered he'd collapsed on Sunday afternoon. He was uninjured, but hadn't been able to get up for 19 hours.
On Tuesday I took him to his doctor, who ordered an MRI and other scans and tests. Without going into a lot of detail, it turned out that Dad was suffering from a combination of arthritis, a resurgence of his cancer, a bad liver, malnutrition, and dehydration. Malnutrition? Dehydration? Dad ate and drank. Not much, because he'd been a grazing snacker all his life, but enough to keep him fed and hydrated and at his fighting weight (welterweight). Except Dad was thirty pounds lighter than he'd been in May and his weakness was caused by his starving body digesting muscle to keep him alive.
I moved in with Dad, monitoring what he ate and giving him water every few hours. But despite my efforts – and his – he faded a bit more each day. On Sunday morning he did not have the strength to sit and at eighty-six years old agreed to go to a hospital for the first time in his life.
On Monday we were being counseled on hospice options and Dad was talking to a priest – something that hadn't happened since the '70s.
On Tuesday someone noticed that despite three liters of saline solution on IV drip for 48 hours, Dad was still dehydrated. They took him down for an ultrasound ("I'm pretty sure I'm not pregnant," Dad insisted.) and discovered where the water was going. His abdominal cavity was filling like a water balloon. No tears or holes, just a system made permeable though some combination of his cancer and bum liver that was explained to me three times and I still don't understand.
On Wednesday they went in and drained the wayward water – which tested non-septic. They made changes in how he got fluids – tiny sips all day long to avoid building up water pressure, put him on a salt-free diet to reduce osmosis and dosed him with hormones that stunned the cancer into immobility.
On Thursday he impressed the physical therapist.
On Friday he was transferred from the hospital to what's called a skilled nursing facility for three to six months of physical rehabilitation to rebuild as much muscle as he can. With what the cancer and arthritis have done to his pelvis and spine, it's unlikely he'll walk unaided – in fact, he'd pretty stupid to try. But he didn't blink at the idea of a light-weight manual wheelchair ("I drove a tank in combat. This is no problem.")
On Monday, today as I'm writing this, a week after the medicos were trying to prepare us for his loss, Dad was propelling himself (slowly) around the common areas charming dowagers and flirting shamelessly with nursing assistants one fourth his age. ("He's so cute I just want to put him in my pocket and take him home with me," one of the latter confided when she thought he was out of earshot.)

I could, if I wanted, turn my Dad's experience into some sort of metaphor on writing. Perseverance or applied serendipity or figuring out what's going on or some such insight into the craft. Not much of a stretch and it would wrap things up neatly. This is, after all, a blog about writing. But I'm not going to do that.
I just wanted to tell you about my Dad.

Monday, October 18, 2010

More on Moms and Thick Skin

My mom calls it as she sees it.

For example, when I made cheerleader both in high school and college she rolled her eyes and said:

“If you’re the cream, I’d hate to see the rest of the crop.”

Another example:

“Phyl isn’t a naturally pretty child like her baby sister, but I fix her up so good you can’t tell the damn difference.”

The Bourne sisters - 1966

Don’t worry. I’m pretty thick-skinned, so this didn’t hurt my tender feelings as a child or put on me on a psychiatrist’s couch as an adult moaning, “Mom liked her best.”

Just like reviews on my books, it’s simply one person’s opinion. I can take it and move on.

Still, even my Mom-thickened skin gets a bit thin when a mediocre review gets tossed in my face over and over again through Google alerts and sites that repeat book blog reviews.

I guess I could turn off those web reminders, but y’all know that’s easier said than done.

Instead, when I get the occasional mediocre review, I take comfort knowing I gave readers my very best effort.

And that, believe it or not, I’m Mom’s favorite!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

POD vs Traditional Publishing

I know I blog a lot about the rapidly changing face of publishing, but how can I not? The industry is in a constant state of flux with the sudden burst of the e-publishing market and major bookstores such as Barnes & Noble's and Borders jumping into the self-publishing business. It's hard to predict what will be considered the "norm" in publishing in just the next five years.

As a writer, many of these changes make me a bit uneasy. The fear of the unknown and all. However, one change that I see in publishing that actually makes sense to me is the thought of publishing houses relying more on a print-on-demand model than the traditional printing model. Blame my couple of years here in the very green city of Austin, but the waste of materials that is associated with traditional publishing sickens me. I've heard and respect the argument that shorter print runs hurt authors, but I think that if it is done efficiently, publishing can eliminate a lot of the cost that goes into printing, warehousing, distributing, and eventually destroying thousands of books. The key to this of course, is efficiency, something the major publishing houses are not necessarily known for. It would be imperative that books are printed and on bookshelves in a short amount of time so that readers do not have the chance to lose interest. Can the big New York houses handle that? I'm not sure, but I think it's worth a try.

I read a few weeks ago that Ingram, one of the major book distributors, has partnered with Springer, a non-fiction publisher of medical and science books, to "reinvent the traditional publishing business model" by utilizing a print-on-demand model "when it makes the most economic sense." Although Springer's customer base is very different from genre fiction, I think everyone in the publishing business should look closely at this new partnership. It just may turn out to be a huge win for publishers, authors, consumers, and the environment as a whole.

What are your thoughts on POD versus the traditional model of printing tens of thousands of books, with the expectations that 35% - 45% of these books will be returned and destroyed? I'm interested in the pros and cons of either of these sides.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Guest author Jade Lee: Sex & the Single Title Romance

The daughter of a Shanghai native and a staunch Indiana Hoosier, Jade Lee struggled to find her own identity somewhere between America and China. The answer was found not only at home, but in her own head. Her imagination allows her to explore China in her Tigress series, dragon power in her fantasy romance Dragonborn, and of course, the amazing power of love in all of them. A USA Today bestseller, Jade’s also a popular speaker appearing all over the country throughout the year.

Outline the sexual progression of most romance novels and you end up with something like this, give or take a few scenes depending on the genre. A sweet, of course, tops out in the first two. A genre historical may have multiple interruptus scenes. An erotic novel may just jump straight to the multiple choice section. Here it is:

First Kiss
Sexus Interruptus (aka – heavy petting)
First love scene (hero dominant)
Additional love scenes – chose from the following choices:
  • heroine dominant
  • oral sex
  • food event
  • scandalous location
  • toys / props
  • non-traditional organs or orifices (esp. paranormals)
  • multiple partners (non-genre romance)
  • skanky villain sex (provided as contrast)
Did I miss anything? Feel free to e-mail me if something’s not there. I always want to learn more!

In any event, given the above list, why oh why do we intelligent, successful women insist on reading the above laundry list over and over again? Obviously, we don’t. Our romance novels are something more than a list that boils down to inserting Tab A into Slot B. But what could it be? What does the successful romance author know about writing that our critics don’t?

Emotional Connection. Yeah, yeah, it all feels good or electric or tingly or throbbing (I had to throw that last one in), but what separates a love scene from say a pornographic picture? Or Rob Lowe on home video? Love. Fear. Anger. Frustration. Deeply felt emotions flow through the best love scenes. They are the substance behind the mechanics and why we return to our favorite genre.

Connect to the Reader. Long before the first caress, characters have to be drawn such that the reader roots for the heroine and falls in love with the hero. I as a reader need to identify with the heroine’s difficulty because I am the heroine. While I am reading, I want to live her dreams and traumas. In my hero, I want to see a man who would brighten my world and help raise my children.

But good sex goes way beyond the connection to the participants. Frankly, sex isn’t a spectator sport. So, while I’m living in the heroine, making love with my hero, what lifts the experience into something more interesting than a grammar class (where oh where does that dangling modifier go)? Ask yourself this: what is the emotion BEYOND lust that pervades the love scene? And (here’s the real kicker) how does it change?

All romance love scenes from first kiss to explosive orgasm should contain lust and at least a glimmer of love (skanky villain sex excluded). But overriding that should be another emotion that layers into every caress, every stroke, every thrust and moan. Anger (at something–the situation, past history) that love changes to peace. Fear that love changes to gratitude (subset: adrenaline sex that reconnects us with living). Jealousy that love changes to worship. Something lost that love transforms into someone found. That’s what I read for. Layer those into your love scenes and you’ll have something readers keep coming back to again and again.

Now it's your turn. Make a comment, add a sexual scene that I missed, or tell me that you love my newest book: Wicked Surrender. Here's a picture! And a link to my website where there's a book trailer. And one lucky commenter will get a free Jade Lee (or Kathy Lyons) book! So...tell me what you think!

Jade Lee

Thursday, October 14, 2010

An “old dog” gets new tricks

Well, I still haven’t unpacked my office yet (I’m in need of a new desk for the new space), but I’ve been keeping a mental shopping list of cool finds I’d like to add to my writer’s tool box.

In my old office, the walls were ruled by giant poster boards squared off in marker and flocked with post-its of varying shades. Then for the most recent manuscript, I attempted to go the tekkie way and convert my wall boards to Word documents that I could edit note with different colored text and print out on legal-sized paper when I just had to hold my thinking in my hands.

Now enter my old method updated: paint and peel and stick.

I found the first fun item in a home improvement how-to magazine. It’s chalkboard paint. Apparently, the neutral paint can be tinted or shaded by mixing it with whatever color your heart desires. How cool is that? No holes in the wall for hanging things, just paint and doodle.

I’ve considered it for a small spot in the kitchen or office, and even considered painting the top of our crafts table in the basement. The kids could use the chalkboard portion as a scratch pad while they do homework. (Does that count as going green?)

The second product I’m currently enamored with is peel and stick dry erase paper. I LOVED the invention of peel and stick decorations for my kids’ rooms. We could go from Pokeman to Spiderman or Winnie-the-Pooh to Disney Princesses – and then nothing at all – by using these press ons. Again, no holes, no adhesive left in their wake.

So imagine my delight at Home Depot last week when I saw giant sheets of peel and stick paper labeled dry erase! (Then, I also came across this dry erase refrigerator online. Who knew?? But, I digress.) Now I can have my oversized wall boards located wherever I want in my office without worrying about how many pinholes I poke in the walls, or what on earth I’m going to do with all those boards once the story appears in print.

Maybe I’m really excited because I’ve found a way to mesh my sometimes “old skool” style with no-nonsense new millennium offerings. It’s the small creature comforts of process that sometimes keep me sane while writing. And it’s all the more comforting to find that within this rapidly changing industry the essentials of my craft haven’t been rendered obsolete. Yet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


As I writer, I am often asked: "Where do you get your inspiration?" Though the question is more or less routine, the answer can often be thought provoking.
I suppose the inspiration for most writers comes from within. That is, an inner drive that motivates you to write about something that interests you. Or to develop a thought or image that captures your fancy into a short story or book length fiction.

But for me, inspiration as a novelist goes well beyond self creation, per se. I find that much of my inspiration comes from everyday life and the many ordinary things that shape our world and keep it moving.

For example, when I take a long walk through the park or ride the MAX train, I get inspiration from watching a couple being romantic or arguing, children at play or fighting with impatient parents, or perhaps watching the rain fall and thinking to myself: What a great opening to my next novel to see the rain coming down hard through the window and my protagonist entering the house soaking wet, only to be greeted by her husband with a rose and kiss, so that she all but forgets that her clothes are clinging to her and hair matted.

In another example, last month I attended a State Fair and found all types of inspiration from the people and animals observed, the overall atmosphere, and even the music. As a romantic novelist, it struck me as the perfect place to have my hero and heroine connect en route to romance, love, and happiness.

There are countless everyday things in which I gain inspiration in my writings, including television scripted and non scripted shows and news programs; going to restaurants, nightclubs, grocery stores, shopping malls, or college campuses.

Traveling far from home is one of my greatest sources of pleasure and inspiration as a novelist, as there are always so many things to do, places to go, people to meet, and scenery to take in.

The Internet is also a great source of inspiration though social networks, the wealth of information at your disposal, interesting articles or anecdotes one may come across, or blogs, having done my fair share of blogging and enjoyed the humor or diversity of other so as to inspire ideas for future plots or subplots.

As such, I never lose any sleep trying to get inspired to write. Not when inspiration is everywhere I look, waiting to catch my attention and give me something to think about.

What inspires your creative juices as a novelist or short story writer? Do you gain inspiration more from personal experiences? Things you see or hear about? Or simply the everyday things in life that knows no boundaries?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Great Responsibility

In my first post at Novel Spaces, as a guest blogger, I wrote about the responsibility that I feel as a writer of children's books to produce books that positively impact my young readers.

I have recently been wondering about publishers' responsibility to not only provide books that will sell, but books that will have a positive impact on the reader's lives. In the Caribbean, children's books tend to mean text books. Most mass distributed novels are literature books, scholarly works well suited for classroom discussions of alliteration and other such techniques.

Publishers print these books because parents will definitely buy them if they are a part of the school curriculum, regardless of the price. Regular children's novels are much harder to sell. So, the supply is driven almost solely by the demand.

I hope that one day we can see a major publisher in the Caribbean market that takes the leap and creates demand by regularly publishing fun, enjoyable novels that encourage our children to pick up a Caribbean based book just for the enjoyment .... the idea just might sell.

Is it just an unrealistic pipe dream? What do you think?

See you again soon, I will write again on October 28.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Writing Night at the Movies

I don’t often talk about movies. I’m not a big movie buff. I haven’t been to a theater to see a film since Lord of the Rings. I probably average ten or less movie rentals a year through PPV, although I do watch movies when they finally come out on TV, and I rewatch movies that I like when they show up on the little screen. However, we live in the age of video imagery and I haven’t escaped its influence. I’m amazed sometimes at how many movies I have seen. And my writing has definitely been affected. Here are some movies that I like very much, and a bit about how they’ve influenced my writing. (Thanks to Scott for the inspiration for this post.)

1. Once Upon a Time in the West: Sergio Leone’s greatest work, even if it didn’t feature Clint Eastwood. Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson were superb. The staging of this movie, the dramatic way in which the scenes were set and the stark landscapes, helped establish the way I visually stage story scenes in my mind. The dusters worn by “Cheyenne’s” men in this movie were a direct influence on the rawhide coats that the bird riders of Talera wear. Lines from the film such as: “You brought two too many,” “Just a man,” and “An ancient race” have influenced the way I structure dialogue. This is my favorite movie of all time.

2. The Thing: I’m referring here to the John Carpenter version, which is my favorite horror movie. (Even the novelization by Alan Dean Foster was thrilling.) This film certainly wasn’t the first to create a sense of claustrophobic horror, but it did it very well. And it also had a great ensemble cast of characters who responded to the horror in wonderfully realistic ways, from their physical actions to their dialogue. This film was certainly an influence on my desire to create ensemble casts for my horror fiction and get them to act like real people facing absolute terror. This was part of what I wanted to do in Cold in the Light, and in that book I often used the night and the woods to create the claustrophobia.

3. Alien: My second favorite horror movie, and it is definitely horror even if it is set in an SF universe. The “chest burster” scene is, to me, the most effective scene ever caught on film. The “alien” is still the coolest alien ever. This one also had the claustrophobic element and the ensemble cast. And it had a strong female lead character, which I’ve tried several times to achieve myself, without great success, I’m afraid. It also had the “ringer,” the one member of the ensemble who turns out not to be what he seems to be. This is a great device for a writer and one I’ve used several times, particularly in Witch of Talera.

4. The Thirteenth Warrior: My favorite fantasy movie of all time. I also thought the book upon which the movie was based was very good. That book was Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. The gritty realistic feel to this movie contrasted strongly with the more “fantasy” feel of such movies as Conan the Barbarian. Instead of it reminding you of “an age undreamed of,” it made you feel as if every instant was absolutely real. I want to achieve that kind of realism in my fantasy. I want my readers to feel the dirt under their nails and the biting tang of blood in their nostrils. The dialogue here was also extremely good and created a sense of drama that I believe fantasy fiction needs.

5. Predator: A reader remarked a number of years back that the Warkind in Cold in the Light reminded him of the “Predator.” I know the “Predator” did influence the development of the Warkind, although there are also many other elements that went into those creatures. In part because I was curious about the nature of the “Predator,” I created an extensive background and social structure for the Warkind.

There are many other movies that have had some level of influence on my work, though certainly nowhere near the level that books themselves have influenced me. Some of these other films would be: The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Hearts and Armor, Conan the Barbarian, Jurassic Park, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Wars.

How about you? Have movies influenced you? In your writing? In other aspects of your life? If so, which movies? What’s your favorite?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

You Need A Thick Skin

On Saturday, October 9th, I participated in an event at the Carter G. Woodson Public Library in Chicago. There was a panel group that discussed the publishing business. The moderator asked questions and each author gave their response. One question remained with me throughout the day. As an author, what advice would you give a newbie?

The author next to me answered, develop a thick skin. Listening to her I realized how important those words were. She went on to say, how some people will get you work and others won't. Don't let them effect your work.

I think the advice is important enough to repeat. As an author/writer, you need to have a thick skin against the cruel and unpleasant opinions of others. Don't get me wrong, I try to gleam information from every comment, but sometimes I don't understand what readers are truly trying to say. So you have to develop a tough skin so that you won't stop writing or question every move you make in this business.

Here's a question for you, have you encountered a comment from someone, maybe a reader comment that doesn't make sense or was hurtful? Please share them with me.

There is a link below that you can click on and add your comment or email me at I'd love to hear from you.

Remember, don't be a stranger.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The power of a critic: writing lessons from ... my mother?

When I was about seven or eight years old, there was a kids’ radio program that aired every Saturday morning, featuring local children. I was invited to participate. The first week I said a simple nursery rhyme:
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you there?
I frightened the little mouse under the chair

When I returned home all excited, my mother demanded, “What foolish poem is that? You’re too old for that. Do something better.”
The next Saturday, I read a story. It was a bible story from an anthology with excruciating details of the plagues and Moses and the Isrealites escape from Egypt. The story was so long that we ran out of airtime. When I returned home, my mother again criticized me.
“What long epistle was that?” she said in her usual derogatory tone. “You can do better.”

The next week I cited a poem The Waterfall, that got a different reaction from Mother. It went like this:

Pretty is the waterfall
As pretty as can be
It showers like the rain that falls
On the deep blue sea

I love to see the water fall
It’s a wonderful sight to see
It looks like water coming from a wall
And it’s just as nice as the sea

The rumbling sound that it makes
Sounds like a rumbling jet
And who made it made no mistake
So don’t you dare forget!

My success with eliciting a compliment from my mother this time had nothing to do with length or complexity of the poem. In fact it was quite simplistic. But it was a poem I composed. My mother was pleased. Finally I got it right.

Sometimes I thought that my mother only criticized me, and nothing I did was good enough for her. Once while in 6th grade I represented my school in an area wide general knowledge quiz. Our school came in second place, which I thought was great as we advanced to the national competition, but my mother expressed her disappointment. When we competed in the national competition, our school won. Only then did she express pride in me. She hugged me and lifted me up placing me on the cabinet, not a small feat for she is only 4 ft 10 in.

Now I realize what Mother was trying to do. She wanted me to excel. She knew I had more potential than I realized and she accepted only excellence from me. In doing so she brought out the best in me. She also taught me one important lesson: to accept criticism and learn from it.

I find myself copycatting my mother a lot these days with my seven year old. And of course she complains that I am never happy with what she does. One thing I notice though is that she tries even harder and asks, “Mommy, are you happy at me now?”

Like my mother, I am realizing potential in my daughter that she doesn’t even see in herself. I’m also trying to teach her to accept constructive criticism and learn from it.

KeVin recently blogged about lessons he learned from his uncle, an author. My mother is not a writer, but the life lessons learned from her have become quite useful in my new career as a novelist, especially the ability to accept criticism. From my first readers who said to me, “you are too longwinded” to the editor who slashed chunks of story I thought were so essential, to the reviewers who find my characters or story less than stellar. I have learned to accept the critique and improve my writing.

These are just some of the lessons I learned from my mother, that have shaped my writing and my life. I know you must have someone in your life whose life lessons you use in your writing, your career, or your life in general. Tell us about it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Knowledge means patience

Before we moved to Australia many many years ago, my mother found out what the Australian curriculum was for my grade (I was just starting Primary-1 at the time but, according to the Aussie system, should have already been in Primary-2). She drilled me in the subjects for the handful of months before our move. That meant that my first full year at school began in Primary-3, because I left Malaysia before completing Primary-1 and passed the Primary-2 exit exam that the Australian school set for me later on that same year.

While that might seem laudable, it wasn't. I hated studying with my mother. She was so unbending and physically abusive that the servants used to comment that I couldn't possibly be her natural child. I used to get caned and slapped across the face for the slightest mistake (even colouring over a line!) and any result less than 100% promised further dire consequences from both parents. (Make no mistake, Asian parents carry grudges. And they are overwhelmingly immature.)

As I look back on those years now, I think the key was one word: knowledge. Neither of my parents completed high school. Did my mother even understand what it was she was trying to teach me? I don't know. What I do know is that her philosophy always was: if you get something wrong, it's your fault.

My philosophy, when teaching my own children, is the complete opposite. If they get something wrong, it's MY fault. My fault for not finding an approach that somehow clicks in their brain. But I can only take that tack if I understand the subject matter myself.

The Wast arms himself with tools in Mathematics by knowing what the Greek roots for words mean (milli, kilo, centi, deci). Little Dinosaur does the same thing for the names of calendar months by understanding some rudiments of Latin (octo, sept, deci). I constantly ask them WHY. Why does three-sixths equal one-half? Why do we say "a quarter past the hour"? Why can you jump higher on the Moon than on Earth?

My mother didn't care about the why. All she was interested in was the mark in red at the top of the exam paper and if it wasn't three figures, or near as dammit, then I was in for a whole world of hurt. This is not the way to educate. If anything, this is the way to turn children away from learning rather than towards it and I want my children to be learning, to find joy in the expansion of knowledge, till the day they drop. But I can only do that if I exert myself to understand the topic to such a degree that I can quickly come up with several ways of teaching the same concept. (Kids' attention spans are short and it's important I keep them engaged while trying to explain something.)

Of course there are days when I get frustrated, when I'm tired or angry about something. But both children are picking up things with such admirable speed, that I can afford to give the kids the day off when I start feeling like that. It's wrong for me to take out my own frustrations on them, especially when it could have such a long-term effect on their psyches.

Shouting at kids isn't enough. Hitting them. Humiliating them. None of that will help put actual knowledge into their heads. Data yes, knowledge no. If your own range of knowledge is small, then you teach small and mean. But if that range of knowledge is large, and willing to get larger, then you can teach large and generously. And your children will thank you for it.

* Kaz Augustin is an homeschooling parent who knows when not to. You can find her website at She has a food blog at and she's also on Facebook and Twitter. Just look for "ksaugustin".

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Dark Side

I feel like I've gone over to the dark side. That image above? It's Liane's Kindle for PC.

You may go ahead and take my temperature. I'm the paper book stoic, the Luddite who dislikes e-books (the platform, that is) on principle - even when said principle gets a bit blurry at times. I don't like the way the digital evolution is throwing life-as-we-know-it into chaos. I don't like that the publishing industry is in a state of flux, although I acknowledge that there is much that's wrong with the status quo and that it's a wasteful, unsustainable model.

I have avowed time and again that I'd never pay hundreds of dollars for a Kindle or any other device of that ilk. Plus, the more I learn about Amazon, the more wary I am of their shenanigans. I deplore the fact that they started off selling Kindle versions of print books at significantly lower prices, then jacked the prices up to the print levels AND BEYOND as soon as they'd sold enough Kindles to establish their market. Compare the cost of producing a paper book to that of the e-version, factor in the price of the reading device, and those prices I see look an awful lot like the book-buying public is being, er, invaded up the, er, ear. For the sake of brevity and circumvention of rants, we won't even discuss the issue of royalty percentages on e-books published by the traditional houses.

Yet I downloaded the Kindle app. on to my laptop. I did it on impulse for practical reasons: (1) I wanted to buy a writer acquaintance's novel and the Kindle price, which she set herself, is a third of the print price (and even less when I factor in the shipping cost). (2) The Kindle for PC is free. (3) I'm flat out of shelf space. Since I'd already crossed the line, I checked out the free books and downloaded some classic novels I'd been wanting to read or reread for ages, including Madame Bovary, The Iliad, Passion in the Desert, A Christmas Carol and Aesop's Fables.

Reading books on my laptop will never be my poison of choice although this new babe of mine is small and light and I can get fairly comfy with it, even in bed. I still prefer to read 'real' books, which for me will always be made of paper.

I feel like a traitor to the paper book cause. I feel like a turncoat. Go ahead. Shoot me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Digesting Your Life

I recently had an e-mail exchange with a writer friend whose new soon to be published manuscript I’d just read. It was one of those fun favors, the latest in a book series I knew and enjoyed, by a writer whose work I love as much as I enjoy her friendship, a chance to do what most of her readers can’t, to share my feelings about the story as a reader and add a few words on I wanted to see while the book was still being formed.

In the course of giving her feedback, I asked her to read the prologue for the novel I’m currently working on, PAST LIFE: A Vampire Testament. It was a difficult chapter to write as it began with what looked like a scene of extreme child abuse, then rolled into a reversal that saved the victim and punished the victimizers.

In the course of setting up what I’d written, I revealed that the moment was based on something someone had told me years ago, a brief glimpse into the past of someone who was once a friend but who’d become so emotionally abusive I had to sever the relationship to survive.

Afterwards, I felt a flash of embarrassment and even guilt over having admitted to taking something real from someone’s life and making something fictional of it. I didn't want to seem as if I was cavalierly using an ex-friend's childhood confidences as pop art -- I knew she’d be thoroughly disguised by the time I was done. But it opened the door to the question -- where is the line? How much of real life can a writer put in their art before it becomes something else, something intrusive?

Terry McMillan’s ex-husband sued her when she wrote a novel that detailed the events of their marriage and break up more closely than he felt comfortable with -- but would anyone have even noticed if we hadn’t been drawn to the book by the headlines about the lawsuit? As soon as I heard about it I was tempted to run out and read it to see what she had to say about him, which would not have been my reaction without the news story.

Truman Capote’s last years were spent in isolation, rejected by the society friends who had pampered him for decades as their pet famous author, until he had the temerity to write a book based on his time with them, Answered Prayers. It's a brilliant unfinished work that is not so much gossiping about his wealthy friends as a look inside the heads and lives of a class most of us seldom get a chance to mix with. As he said in disbelief at their sense of betrayal, "I’m a writer! What did they think I did in my spare time? I observed life – and I wrote about it!”

Which sums it up for all us fiction and non-fiction writers. It is what we do. Writers are all vampires of a sort, in that we feed on our own pasts and the people around us for material. What we write can only be the sum of who we are and what we’ve experienced. It isn’t always pretty or pleasant. To a large degree, I see my characters as fragmented pieces of myself, mixed with assorted aspects of friends, family and people I’ve known, blended well and distilled into -- hopefully -- someone new and original that still rings real. That doesn’t mean that someone isn’t going to see a moment we shared or a snippet of something of themselves in my books. It’s inevitable.

“Write what you know” is what all beginning writers are told. Take events from your life that you understand well enough to use to represent your fictional world truthfully, even if not factually. As writers we have nothing else to use, other than research, and even that is always filtered through our own experiences. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only real rule we can use is the Hippocratic Oath -- to do no harm.

I’ve come to see “working from life”, as painters would say, as a therapeutic process. I’ve used more and more of the conflicted relationships in my life in my more recent and best writing. They aren’t always easy to look at, to write or to read, but for me the best material comes out of true events that disturb, scare or upset me, as much, if not more than the happy-happy joy-joy times. Do you remember the flavor of cake you had on your fifth birthday, or the kid who shoved you and took back his gift because he didn’t care what his mom said, damn it, he picked it out in the store and thought it was for him? Conflict is at the heart of all good stories, fiction or non-fiction.

Rather than using my work as a means of revenge or getting the last word, I find that when I draw on life I usually end up identifying with the characters I create in a way I never could with the original person. As I seek out their point of view, to be able to write them fairly and accurately, I often find myself reviewing the real relationship and what went wrong, from their side as well as mine.

By the time I'm done, I've often exorcised any original malice that may have driven me. Adam Caine from my first novel, BITE MARKS, is a fine example -- he is the repository of a great deal of cruelty and malice I've encountered or observed in many people over the years. I’ve seen his roots more clearly as I seek to find redemption for him over the course of the Testaments, and find ways to forgive his forebears.

I writing the prologue to PAST LIFE I found myself giving the lead character a voice I'd not heard in my memories of her real life source. I found tenderness for my fictionalization of her inner child that my anger at the end couldn't allow with the real person who'd injured me. As I wrote later chapters of her in adulthood I found myself discovering more insights into what she did in my past and why. The character will still be a villain -- have no doubt -- but a motivated one like Adam Caine, whose motives we understand and, like Hannibal Lechter, can almost identify with.

Getting there means going deep into memories of someone I cut out of my life, something I've never done lightly and only about four times in over fifty years of life on Earth. The journey is difficult, but already paying off as I see the character of Dr. Adeniké Morgan growing. She isn’t cardboard to me, but flesh and blood, and as I work on her, I see her becoming a character who will break new ground for me. Will Dr. Morgan’s source recognize herself if she picks up the book? I hope not, but if she does, I hope she will see what I saw -- a flawed human being, damaged by life, who was pushed down a path by life she might otherwise have avoided, but one I at least understand now, and can forgive, if not forget.

To me, writing should never be therapy forced down the throats of the reader as you try to figure yourself out -- but revealing insights understood after the fact can benefit the writer and the reader. Conclusions can bring closure for both. I will continue to use my life and research, and try not to feel like a vampire, but will also be mindful of the real world implications of doing so, and as I said, follow the edict to do no harm.

Getting the last word carries with it a responsibility to make those words of value, not vengeance.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Worldbuilding: Political and Economic Systems

It may be the lasting influence of George W. Bush's confused utterances. It may be due to students paying less attention in social studies class. Maybe I'm just more aware of it now that I experience books as a writer as well as a reader.

Whatever the reason, more and more often I see people conflate three very different concepts: capitalism, democracy, and liberty.

Capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership of the means of production and the means of distribution. Workers are paid wages, and individuals and companies aim to make a profit.

Democracy is a political system in which the people govern, either directly or through representatives they elect.

Freedom is a philosophical concept. It has had many different meanings over the millennia, but at its essence has to do with the arenas in which people can behave as they choose and the arenas in which people are protected from oppression.

The United States is a representative democracy whose economy is rooted in capitalism and whose Constitution and its amendments guarantee certain freedoms and protections. Democracy, capitalism, and freedom are constantly evolving. For example, two hundred years ago in the United States, slaves and women could not vote, and poor children worked long hours for pitiful wages instead of going to school.

I'm not leading up to an attack on the Tea Party movement, although its members do seem quite confused about these concepts and their history. Rather, I want to encourage people who write historical and speculative fiction to think carefully about their extrapolations into the future or past. Too often, the stories and books I read don't hold water because the author takes as given the idea that capitalism and freedom are defaults, natural and good, rather than social constructs viewed differently by different people. How often have you read fantasies with a Bronze- or Iron-Age civilization with an apparent free-market economy with no explanation of how such an economy could have developed? How often have you read a fantasy or sf story in which a slave wants to be free, with no explanation of how they got such an alien idea in a society in which slavery is accepted and free people are in the minority?

I've barely skimmed the surface of the problem of American beliefs about democracy, capitalism, and freedom infecting fiction set in other places and time periods. I'll leave a fuller treatment to a grad student in need of a thesis topic.

I'll stop here by restating an argument I've made before in my NovelSpaces blog posts: Writers need to be well versed in many subjects, including the social sciences. Poor fiction results when people don't research or examine their personal beliefs and prejudices before worldbuilding.

I'll be blogging here again on October 21. Until then, may your writing be true to your world.

—Shauna Roberts

Monday, October 4, 2010

So, Sex Sells, huh?

So, sex sells, huh? We hear that all the time. The notion that if the word sex, or sexy content and images are involved, folks will hand over their full attention, and their money.

This might be the case when it comes to music, or advertising, as in this body wash ad with the sexy image. And yes, sexy images on book covers are standard, eye-catching ways to promote - some of my titles have very sexy covers. But, I want to set the record straight as far as how well a sex related book will actually sell, simply because it is categorized as erotica. It won't - the simple fact that it's erotica is not enough, and it can sometimes be a negative as opposed to a positive. It is an injustice to all erotica authors to assume this - that we can simply throw a few dirty words in a book and we're done. Writing erotica is a bold move, and writing erotica is not easy.

People have said that some authors switched genres to make money in this industry, and that they (we) decided to write erotica to please our publishers and to get on the "sex sells" bandwagon to make money. Well, I'm here to tell you that just because you write an erotica book, you are not automatically going to start pulling in the riches because you now use "P" words that place your titles into a "popular" genre. No matter how popular the genre might be, your book will not sell unless readers know about it through advertising or word of mouth, and it will not garner word of mouth if the writing is inferior. You must still craft a good story, sex or not, and write a page-turner, three-some or not. It's not about the sex, it's about the journey of the characters.

Writing erotica is not the magic road you can take to the land of riches. Deciding to write erotica is not as easy as one might think. A lot of factors must be taken into account. Some are internal, and others are about whether one can write a story that qualifies as erotica - not just one story, many stories, because just as with any genre, it can take a building of momentum to begin to get noticed.

I've written eleven books in many genres, including inspirational fiction, and erotica under the name PYNK, had numerous contracts, self-published as well - writing erotica is not a get rich quick scheme - we are all in the business together, working hard to reach the best-seller lists that will hopefully mean/lead to selling thousands, millions, billions of copies. It's not as easy as simply picking a genre. It's all about writing the book that people can't stop talking about, the one that garners tons of attention, the one that sells out and reprints, and ensures a royalty check is in the envelope along with that lonely royalty statement. Sometimes there's an accompanying check, and sometimes there's not!

In the meantime we write, hopefully because we love it. And we write to express the stories that we feel need to be told, whether romance, mainstream, mystery, or erotica. And though we categorize titles, we should not categorize each other. No matter what genre we write in, we are all authors living our passion, whether we sell or not. The books on the shelves are a smorgasbord of tastes - a plethora of sizes - a melting pot of colors. One does not suit all. Sexy cover or not.

So, sex sells, huh?