Saturday, December 31, 2011

Guest author Joanne C. Hillhouse: Got an author reading? Don't sweat it

Photo by Emile Hill
Antiguan and Barbudan author Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of Oh Gad! – a novel scheduled for publication by Simon and Schuster in 2012. Her previous books are The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. She’s published in various literary journals, and her literary prizes include a UNESCO Honour Award, the Michael and Marilee Fairbanks international fellowship to participate in the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and the David Hough Literary Prize from the Caribbean Writer. Her activities include youth writing programme the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize.

I don’t sweat.

Well, okay, I do sweat; quite a bit, actually. I’m talking the kind of dampness that has people (okay, one person, one time) approaching me in the supermarket, concern wrinkling her brow: “Miss, you okay?”

But I don’t sweat when I’m nervous, like I invariably am, right before a reading. No, the signs are subtler: For only I can hear my heart trying to sledgehammer its way out of my chest, and the way everything gets dark and tight until passing out is a real possibility. And only I, once at the lectern, can feel the way one leg locks, firm, while the other trembles – not shaking like it does when idle, but trembling like an earthquake; And only I can sense the weird standing beside myself thing that happens.

One self chastises, “your leg is shaking, stop it, stop it”, worrying that the leg will give out and leave me sprawled on the floor; while the other keeps reading, initially stumbling over familiar words before catching her stride. This self is, by definition and inclination, a writer not a reader nor entertainer – which people seem to expect writers to be. But her motto is ‘feel the fear but do it anyway’, and so she does. She’s impressive really, this second self. On good days, she will begin to feel herself vibesin’ with the audience – encouraged by their laughter and murmurs. She’ll assert herself, as she tunes in to the story and her audience tunes in to her and the story she’s telling, the two of them hitting the same frequency. And just like that, they’ll merge. And soon she is one with them, the audience, herself, and Sexy Sadie (or whichever character happens to be commanding their attention).

I am no authority on readings. But since publishing my first book, I’ve survived (yes, you read that right: survived) more than a few readings – at this writing, I just completed one at the University of Toronto which included the first ever previews of my forthcoming book Oh Gad! alongside previously anthologized poetry. It went amazingly well.

I’m not sure how the next one will go, of course, but while I’m in the zone, here are some of my tried and true tricks, which you might find useful too.

1. Breathe. Cliché but true. I suck it in and hold it, counting down, trying to slow my heart beat. And it works. Deep breaths keep me from passing out – because like all humans, I need oxygen to live – and they slow things down. They remind me to trust the work; it’s ready…and with another deep breath, I’ll be ready too.

2. Distract Yourself/Be Present. Now, this sounds like a contradiction but it really isn’t. I try not to obsess about what I’m about to read. As I prepared for tonight’s reading, I ironed, watched music videos, surfed the web, tried to work (couldn’t settle down enough for that), tried on my outfit, took it off …all before leaving the hotel room.

At the event, I listen to the other speakers. I clap. I laugh. I am there. Beats sitting and worrying (read: obsessing) about all the things that could go wrong.

On this particular night, my debut reading from Oh Gad! nothing did. And isn’t that usually the case?

3. Prepare. Of course, distracting yourself only works if you’ve prepared; you know, like you can only sleep the night before the big test, instead of being up all night cramming, if you’ve actually been keeping up with your reading throughout the term. So, I prep and practice (when you’re not a natural, you have to) then, like they say in those Italian mobster movies, fuhgeddaboutit. Which is not to say that during early performances of my rare acting turns (in local productions of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and Antigua & Barbudan equivalent When a Woman Moans) you may not have found me prowling back stage running lines trying to get into the right emotional head space; I’m not Meryl Streep, after all.

4. Take it in. This is a big one, and one I still have to work on. I’ve been known to treat readings like I did those big tests in that, I do not want to discuss or think about it after it’s done. I was not the girl to stand around discussing what answer I put for question six, when it was past the time that I could do anything about it. Move on, that’s been my mantra. But, this approach doesn’t work with readings where it’s advised that you hang around and discuss the book, make small talk, socialize. Me, I fled my Breadloaf reading as soon as it was done; turns out, several people actually found me in the days that followed to congratulate me on the reading, would have been better if I had hung around to hear it. In Toronto, I stayed put and survived (no, I can actually say that I enjoyed) the small talk, and embraced the response from the audience that, as I subsequently told a friend, felt like love.

So, my final bit of advice to you – and me – be in the moment. After all, it’s your moment.

5. Oh, and, go to the bathroom before leaving your room, or sweating may be the least of your worries.

So, what are your tips for giving your best reading?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

That Resolutions Time of Year

Hard to believe we are already counting down the days before the New Year arrives. Why it seems as if only yesterday we were ringing in 2011. Where does the time fly?

This can only mean that it is resolution time again. I had a number of resolutions for this year, such as make my deadlines, write a certain amount each day, pace myself accordingly, and keep the writing world in a proper perspective in keeping in mind what is truly important in life, such as good health and love of family. I also vowed to exercise regularly and no longer use the writing as an excuse not to.

Happily, I kept all of my 2011 resolutions and am the better for it.

Now, with 2012 right around the corner, my resolutions for the New Year begin with those from this year in terms of maintaining a dependable and workable writing daily writing schedule, not missing a single deadline, and doing my part to ensure good health while taking enough time to smell the roses in life and spending as much quality time with my wife and family as possible in keeping my priorities in order.

Along with these resolutions, I also want to continue to please my fans with great fiction and nonfiction; and spread my writing wings, so to speak, by adding more screenplays to my repertoire, having already written one currently being read by two producers.

Lastly, I am resolved to taking my wife to Maui, our home away from home, this year, where everything is beautiful , including the weather. Maybe while enjoying the leisure, sand, sun, and ocean, I can look ahead on resolutions for 2012...

What are your resolutions for the New Year? Did you have any for this year? Did you achieve them?

Happy New Year!

Devon Vaughn Archer

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

e-Gift Giving

It's that time of year when lives are busy and time for updating blogs is short. I have to complete all the things that I planned to do in 2011! No, seriously, I am heading out on a trip to the Western Region of Ghana and very excited about it so please forgive me for this short and not particularly insightful posting.

This Christmas, I gave my husband and father books for their presents; not physical books this time around, but eBooks. Now, keep in mind that I am a major proponent of this development in the realm of reading. I have released my three children's books as eBooks and purchased Kindles for my children. I must say, however, that it felt a bit odd to give an eBook as a present ...convenient (I chose my husband's books in the wee hours of Christmas morning) ... but I missed watching him open the present and flip through the pages to preview his new novel.

I imagine that by next year I will be an old hand at this and presenting eBooks to everyone on my list!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Color and Mood

Do you use a lot of color terms in your writing? Do you do it with a purpose?

Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, often used “black” in his fantasy and horror fiction. Some say he used it too often, but when you read his stories you don’t really notice the frequency of the word, you notice the mood the word helps create.

Howard also used shades of red a lot. I use them as well, partially because I write horror and adventure fiction and there’s always the color of blood to describe. Of course, words like dark and black and shadow appear in horror fiction a lot as well. As do their opposites, such as pale and pallid and white.

The proper use of color in fiction depends much on the environment/setting as well. In the summer woods you will have prominent greens and browns and grays, with only wisps of other colors. In the desert there will be sandy tans and, possibly, pale pinks and reds and oranges. If your work features skies and oceans, then certain colors follow naturally. If you are trying to create a sense of exotica, then exotic colors may help. Think about the strange colors of the foods and plant life that you see on many episodes of the original Star Trek.

Color is a powerful subjective experience for most people. If used carefully it can suggest much without weighing your prose down with multiple adjectives.

Do you have a color or colors that you depend on a lot in your own work? For me it’s probably black and red. If you do have a writing “color,” is it the same as your favorite color in the real world? My favorite colors are the dark reds, tending toward the maroons.

Let me close with a short list of some of the more interesting color terms available to writers. At least in my opinion.

Aeruginous bluish green like copper rust
Amaranth dark purplish red
Amethyst purple or violet
Argent silver
Cinereous ash gray
Cinnabar brilliant red
Cyan dark blue-green
Fuchsin purplish red
Fulvous dull reddish brown, brownish yellow, or tawny
Gules red as referred to in heraldry
Indigo a deep violet blue
Lapis Lazuli azure-blue
Lavender pale purple
Magenta purplish red
Mauve delicate purple
Niveous the color of snow
Ochre dark yellow
Onil a deep violet blue (indigo)
Puce brownish purple
Russet yellowish brown or reddish brown
Saffron orange yellow
Sepia dark reddish brown
Taupe brownish gray
Topaz yellow
Umber raw = yellowish brown, burnt - reddish brown
Vermeil scarlet vermilion
Vermilion brilliant red or scarlet
Violet bluish purple
Xanthous yellow or yellowish

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas wish list

It’s Christmas day again. Another year that flew by. It’s a time of traditions, myths and gift giving. In my family, we’re still trying to forge a tradition which incorporates my husband’s and my culture and that of the country wherein we live.

For my kids, though, it seems to be all about the presents. My eight year old, of course, had a long wish list that grew longer with each passing day. My three year old just wanted a present and my two year old had no idea what was happening besides seeing pretty lights.

My husband, my ever unchanging sweetheart, did exactly as he’d done for the many years we’d been together. He waited until the day before Christmas Eve to ask me what I wanted for Christmas. I thought about it long and hard, because what I want, he probably cannot give me. So here are five things that topped my Christmas wish list:

1. Good health
2. Increased sales on my existing books
3. A day job
4. A publisher for my children’s book series
5. A good contract with a major publishing house.

Of course since my husband can give me none of the things on my wish list I just told him to surprise me.

What’s on your Christmas wish list?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Guest author Catherine McNamara: The Waiting Game

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and studied visual communication and African and Asian modern history before moving to Paris. She worked in pre-war Mogadishu and later lived nine years in Accra, Ghana, where she ended up running a bar and traditional art gallery. She moved to northern Italy several years ago, where her jobs have included translating welding manuals and modelling shoes. She has impressive collections of African sculpture and Italian heels.

And I thought pregnancy was a long wait! Each morning this week, just before midday, I will be listening for the postman’s motorbike coming down our drive and the dog beginning to run up and down the fence in a frenzy. The postman is to deliver the first dummy copy of my novel, The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy, which has occupied my thoughts and time for a good few years. Not to complain – it is my debut novel and I am thrilled – but my editor has worn me down and the revisions have been endless. This is the last step in this part of the process and in April, after advance review copies have been sent out, my book will finally be published!

Let me take you back to the beginning. The seed, if you like. One summer several years I slept over at a friend’s and was driving back on a straight sun-soaked road to my neck of woods in northern Italy, where I live with my kids. That summer I was taking a break from a heavy literary novel set in Ghana where I spent ten tropical years. My friend suggested I write something funny, something about Italy. But at the time Italy was driving me nuts. A sexy but sexist country run by a shameless entrepreneur (Signor Berlusconi), whose shifty manners and ways had filtered through society. Write about Italy? Something funny?

By the end of that car trip I had a title, a first sentence and a great burst of writing energy that saw me typing away in the chicken shed by the house until winter.

Round 2: Submission. I find this the most disheartening part of the game. Probably because it involves not only waiting, but usually rejection as well. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger or, in a writer’s case, makes you a better editor. After a couple of years of submitting I did a stretch of 5am starts and produced a sharp new version. Then, midsummer last year, I was sitting in a bar with an Australian friend on holidays when I glanced through my emails.

And there it was. We would like to offer you a contract of publication.

Several Campari spritzes later the message was still there and proven not to be an illusion of the drink. Soon after, I signed my contract, revised again (this involved reading out loud with a red pen – backwards and forwards) and waited.

And waited. Perhaps I didn’t push enough and there were other authors more pushy than myself. Perhaps I hadn’t understood the time frame. My publisher is a small independent press and months passed before I was introduced to my editor, with whom I went over and over The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. There were moments when I thought I couldn’t look at another page of it. When my eyes burned and nothing made sense – the original text, my editor’s suggestions, my ideas... nothing! And yet there were times after a break when I still giggled at my own humour (had I gone crazy?).

A couple of weeks ago we hit the FINAL VERSION. Which, given the amount of tiny errors we were adjusting at the end, seemed even premature. What if there were escapees within the text? Lack of flow? Repetitions? But I do believe we are there. The book is evenly paced; I didn’t have to sacrifice too much of my whacky language; I think that technically, it all makes sense. The experience has given me even greater respect for any person able to put a book on a shelf in a bookstore, a story that intrigues from beginning to end without hiccoughs. Editing is awful.

And so these days I am waiting. Last month I received word from my publisher that my collection of Africa-based short stories Pelt and Other Stories has been accepted for publication. While my heart burst with joy and relief, I am already (just a little), worried about the editing to come. In the meantime, Mr. Postman, please hurry up with my book.

– Catherine McNamara

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Richard Pryor: A role model for writers

This month marks the anniversaries of both the birth of Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III (December 1, 1940) and his death (December 10, 2005).

Richard Pryor has long been a hero of mine, and I would like to share with you some of the reasons why.

Pryor was the quintessential American hero who rose from adversity to achieve his dreams. As he himself said, "I live in racist America and I'm uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do, and I can make a living from it. You can't do much better than that."

And he made that rise from adversity repeatedly.

He started life as the son of a prostitute who abandoned him when he was only ten. He was then raised by his grandmother, the madam of a brothel, who beat him. That was not the worst of his childhood. He was also sexually molested as a six-year-old by a neighbor and later by a priest. At 14, Pryor was expelled from school. He spent some of his time in the Army in jail for beating up a racist white soldier. There was every reason to expect Pryor to be a failure.

Instead, after he left the Army, he began singing in clubs. He discovered his talent lay more in comedy and soon began appearing on TV variety shows and then in Las Vegas. By age 27, he had risen from rags to riches and was a well-known comic.

He would have to rise from the ashes (one time literally) many more times. The next time was in the mid-1960s when he sought a more authentic comic persona that would portray black life and race relations with brutal honesty. His race-related themes and his increasing use of profanity made him controversial, and opportunities to work dried up.

Instead of giving up, Pryor reinvented himself. He moved to Los Angeles and began appearing in movies. He generally had poor roles to work with, yet he was hired again and again, eventually appearing in forty-two movies.

Although he was perhaps the greatest stand-up comedian ever, his personal life was less successful. He married seven times and had five different wives. His drug use, his adultery, and his alleged mistreatment of most of his wives contributed to this turnover. He had a heart attack at age 36. He was not happy, and in a strange suicide attempt in 1980, Pryor poured rum over himself and set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine.
Despite the odds, he survived, badly burned. It's hard to imagine anyone bouncing back from such despair, severe injuries, and public humiliation. But he did. He even worked his freebasing incident into his comedy routine and got big laughs making fun of himself.

In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A long-time advocate for animals, he continued to oppose medical experimentation on animals even though such research might lead to better treatments for MS. He continued performing comedy and acting for years after his diagnosis.

Writers can learn many lessons from Pryor:
  • When life knocks you down, get back up. Repeat as necessary.
  • Take responsibility for your failures and turn them to your advantage.
  • Be willing to reinvent yourself.
  • Be true to your vision as an artist.
  • Reveal the truth, even if it hurts your career.
  • Don't take yourself too seriously.
  • Avoid self-pity.
  • Use your pain to understand and help fix the suffering of others.
  • Help those who are not as well off as you.
  • Hold true to your principles. 
These lessons have proven invaluable in my personal life too. As some of you know, I have many chronic illnesses that at times have made it difficult or impossible for me to work or to do the things I love. Each time, I thought about Richard Pryor and followed his example. No self-pity. Get back up. Reinvent myself to accommodate my new circumstances. Use my pain to help others. Repeat as necessary. Because Pryor bounced back, I knew I could too.

Thank you, Mr. Pryor.

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on January 6, 2012, when my topic will be the use of details in fiction. I hope you have a wonderful New Year!

—Shauna Roberts

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Deadlines - Help!!!!!

No, I don't quite look or feel like this woman, yet! They say, "never let 'em see you sweat." Not sweating, but busy as hell!

I always seem to have a deadline in December or January and each time, my plan is to complete the manuscript at least 30 days before the due date. However, I find myself writing during and after the holidays, carving out time to promote, attend events, keep up with other titles and opportunities, market, ship, self-publish, keep up with groups, handle other projects, etc., and remember to put up the tree and wrap gifts. Oh yeah, make time to buy the gifts. There never seems to be enough time during any month, but even more so in December. Plan, organize, schedule, discipline, time-management - blah, blah blah!

This month, the 20th rolled around entirely too fast, and here I am posting when I know I should have scheduled my post in advance. I do see that other authors have done that. Why didn't I?

I'm writing on this topic because an author friend reminded me, we'll get it done in due time, we'll make a way, it'll work out, cut out what you need to so you don't over-promise, and do what you can. Make adjustments as necessary and be glad for the opportunities. I know that deadlines are a good thing - it means we've put ourselves out there and are brave enough to engage in taking a shot at delivering. In the big scheme of things, that is what the allure of living out passions is all about - being able to create and deliver. Thank you, my dear author friend. This all comes along with living my dream.

To those who like me, feel their plate is too full - sometimes we've got to trim the fat and take a deep breath. It's all good and it's okay! You're not alone. But bottom line, make time for family, and the reason for the season. That is what matters most. The rest, will get done in due time. Maybe just not in the time it was due!! And in order to keep our sanity, sometimes you've got to readjust. Live up to your commitments, but don't wreck your brain and your holidays doing it!

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Naked Came the Stranger

At some point during discussions of the viability or validity of independent publishing someone critical of the concept is bound to opine that traditional publishing houses act as quality filters, ensuring that only books worth reading get published. Which will usually cause someone on the other side of the fence to bring up Nicole "Snookie" Polizzi's "A Shore Thing." Fact is, you don't have to cite extreme market miscalculations like that one. The old Barnes & Noble in Wilmington was a few blocks from UNCW and had a café friendly to writers and college students, complete with wooden tables for four and a long counter with stools across the front where I did much of my early writing. (The new, trendier B&N is nearer the beach and its café features little round tables fit for two coffee cups and a biscotti; no counter.) One of the pleasures of writing there was that at any time I felt overwhelmed or discouraged, I could stroll through the racks and find a dozen books worse than anything I'd written published by major houses.

However, as bad as some traditionally published books are, in every case they represent a storyteller's sincere effort to master the craft and an editor's belief in the quality of that effort. (Or, in Polizzi's case, the belief that a tell-all book disguised as a novel by a TV reality show personality would be of interest to someone, anyone.) You might take it as a given that no one ever set out to write a bad book. And you would be wrong.

Back in the late 1960s the bestseller lists in the USofA were dominated by works by writers like Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, and Jacqueline Susann. Vapid novels about morally bankrupt people who would make the characters of Gossip Girl look like philosophical giants exploiting everyone around them, having sex at the drop of an innuendo, drinking and drugging to ridiculous degrees, and either coming to a bad end or finding eternal happiness as a result. This was the era of "Valley of the Dolls" and "Portnoy's Complaint." By the standards of today's more erotic romances, the sex was pretty tame, but it was shocking stuff forty-five years ago.

A newspaper columnist named Mike McGrady became so fed up with (or so alarmed by, depending on the source) the "sex sells" mentality he saw driving American culture that he decided to do something about it. He put together a team of twenty-four fellow journalists for the sole purpose of producing a horrifically bad novel with lots of sex and trying to sell it. The basic premise for "Naked Came the Stranger" was a husband and wife who are NYC celebrities with a morning radio talk show. The wife (Gilly) discovers her husband (Billy) has been cheating on her and decides to even the score by having sex with as many married men in their upscale Long Island community as possible. Her goal is to corrupt and seduce every archetype of civic and moral leadership she can find. Rules for writing were purple prose throughout (example: Gilly's breasts are "pendulums of passion swinging in the winds of lust") and two sex scenes in every chapter, with the sex act itself depicted mechanically but with awkward euphemisms for the clinical details. None of the writers knew anything about what the others wrote and McGrady required rewrites if he detected any literary merit whatsoever. Gilly's appearance and body type change with every chapter, though she is consistently beautiful. (There's a scene wherein the sight of her naked breasts causes a homosexual man to become heterosexual.)

In 1968 a relative of McGrady's posed as new author Penelope Ashe marketing "Naked Came the Stranger" as her first novel. The book sold to the first major house she
approached and was published in 1969, becoming an instant bestseller (the picture of the naked woman on the cover probably helped). Book reviewers in major markets, including Stern, Le Monde, and the New York Times, used phrases like "sizzling" and "thought-provoking" and compared the ersatz Penelope Ashe to John Updike and Philip Roth. She appeared on talk shows, was interviewed about sexual liberation in women's magazines, and advised aspiring writers to impale themselves on their typewriters. After a few months the authors appeared en mass on the David Frost Show, explaining their reasons for the hoax and expressing some embarrassment that their intended pillory of "sex sells" novels was now outselling its competition. The revelation of the hoax actually triggered a jump in sales fueled by widespread speculation the novel was in fact a roman-a-clef and that the adulterous men in the Long Island community were nationally known public figures.

Naked Came the Stranger is more fun to read about than it is to read. In fact, reading it is a chore. Not only are the mores of the period awkward by today's standards, the book itself is deliberately and methodically awful. Oh, there are moments. Like when Gilly asks a pornographer where he gets all his kinky ideas and he replies: "Like every other writer, I draw from the human condition." But on the whole, McGrady did a thorough job of eradicating anything of value from the manuscript.

Naked Came the Stranger was a bestseller not because of its excellence, but because people will read what they want to read despite what any arbiters of literary taste say or gatekeepers of excellence do. And "gatekeepers" includes the band of hoaxers who were sounding the alarm about the degeneration of American literature. The trend they were protesting matured, outgrew its "look what we can get away with" stage, and diversified into the spectrum of spicy, sensuous, and erotic romance novels that today makes up the lion's (lioness's?) share of the world fiction market. All of which says a lot about the role of traditional publishers, and the potential future of independents.

(More about Naked Came the Stranger in Museum of Hoaxes and Wikipedia)

Friday, December 16, 2011

NaNoWriMo: It's Not You; It's Me.

Okay, show of hands: How many people here participated in the annual “National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)” during November? If so, how’d you do? If you met or exceeded the goal of the exercise, then I applaud you. What you accomplished in those thirty days is nothing short of amazing. Even if you signed up with the best of intentions and fell short, give yourself a pat on the back. It's hard enough just sitting down to write in the first place, let alone trying to do it while staring down that kind of pressure.

Me? I didn’t participate this year, though I came closer to going for it than I did in 2010. Back then, I was still smarting about the previous year. Why? Because in 2009, the first year I decided to try my hand at what definitely is quite the challenge presented by NaNoWriMo, I failed.


My intentions were pure. In late October 2009, as I was gearing up to start writing the novel which would be due to my editor in February 2010, I decided that I was perfectly positioned to take my own shot at this “NaNoWriMo thing” I’d been hearing others talk about during prior years. 50,000 words in a month? That would be half of my projected word count for the book, putting me well ahead of the schedule I’d already outlined for myself between November 1st and the novel’s actual due date. The first day of the month arrived and somebody somewhere fired the NaNoWriMo gun, and we were off. My output for Day 1 was something shy of 1,300 words, just under the per-day pace to which one might aspire if intending to pursue the month’s goal. I could make up the difference with little or no problem, I told myself.

And then? Well, I could offer all sorts of excuses, maybe trot out a story about how real life got in the way (it did), or my day job (that, too), or how other writing assignments—each with their own crunch deadlines—showed up. They did, and I met those deadlines, but what about my personal goal of knocking out half of my novel in a month?

Um, not so much. By the end of the month, and while I actually stayed more or less on pace with meeting my actual, contracted February deadline, I was well short of meeting the NaNoWriMo goal. What the heck happened?

The simple answer? I suck at self-imposed deadlines.

My day job is ruled by deadlines; immovable milestones which cannot be missed regardless of when those particular days of the month fall on the calendar. Failure to hit those marks carries with it the prospect of financial penalties as well as damaging our standing with our clients. Weekends, holidays, illness and/or vacation don’t matter; the dates are the dates, and that’s just the way it is. With kids, you’re always on some kind of schedule, be it school, Taekwondo, gymnastics, play dates, and so on. So far as my commissioned writing is concerned, I take those deadlines and due dates very seriously. I loathe the very idea of being late, and my friend and co-writer, Kevin Dilmore, will tell you that my level of focus and crankiness increases as a deadline looms.

On the other hand, when it comes to writing just for me, I tend not to set any sort of real deadline. Instead, I just write and see where the words take me. I guess you can say it’s my way of scratching the writing itch while at the same time taking a break and decompressing from the “job aspect” of the process. It’s also one of the few opportunities I have to give the calendar, my schedule, and everything else the Big Finger. After so many years spent figuring out how to balance my professional writing with my day job, family, and other responsibilities and demands on my time, I think it’s just second-nature for me to do things this way. In the back of my brain, I know that no matter how I dress it up, a self-imposed writing deadline carries no penalty.

That said, I’m stubborn, and part of me keeps telling myself, “Shut up and try again, bonehead.” It’s obviously too late for 2011, but what about NaNoWriMo 2012? If I’m going to sign up for the program next year, I’m going to need some kind of accountability plan; something public so that I can equate it in all the ways that matter to a contracted deadline. Yeah, that just might be the ticket.

So, anybody else struggle with deadlines, be they external or self-imposed? What methods or tricks do you employ to keep yourself focused?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Guest author Chicki Brown: A Brave New World

Contemporary women’s fiction/romance author Chicki Brown has published four Kindle best selling novels. An avid reader, her favorite authors are Beverly Jenkins, Eric Jerome Dickey, Lisa Kleypas, J.R. Ward and Suzanne Brockmann. A New Jersey native, Brown and her family relocated to suburban Atlanta, Georgia in 1994, and she now proudly calls herself a “Georgia peach.” Her many homes in cyberspace include her website, personal blogTwitter, and Facebook.

A Brave New World

I’m certain this title has been overused when talking about electronic publishing, but it is most appropriate. June 2012 will mark my second anniversary as an e-author. In this short time, I have learned enough about the industry to fill volumes, and the learning process continues daily. The publishing industry is morphing into an organism that’s never before existed, and this is a good thing for authors. We are now in the driver’s seat. It’s not such a good thing for those who are rushing to throw something into cyberspace just to jump on the bandwagon.

My concern is with what I see happening in the industry lately. Many first-time authors are spitting their books out onto Kindle and Nook hoping to cash in on the explosion in electronic publishing. Unfortunately, in their zeal, many of these newbies have skipped several essential steps in the process of becoming a successful e-book author.

During my daily Internet travel, I end up talking to new and aspiring authors. It is becoming clear to me a great many of them are under the misconception that e-publishing is the “quick and easy” road to publication. They haven’t done their homework on the details of what it takes to get a properly formatted manuscript onto Kindle, Nook and the other electronic readers. Some of them even assume those e-tailers will do the formatting, revision and even marketing for them. Wrong!

I know I’m from a different generation, but I believe expecting instant anything other than rice or oatmeal is a joke. Publishing, whether traditional or electronic, involves a LOT of hard work, long hours, tedious revisions and repetitive tasks. Certainly, an author can farm these duties out to someone else, but unless the aspiring author is a celebrity or independently wealthy, they can’t afford to do so. This means the responsibility is on the creator of the work.

Before I started writing, I had always been an avid reader, only I had no idea how my favorite authors created the stories I loved. Writing my first books was a blast, but the plot was convoluted, it was filled with headhopping and tons of backstory. All I did was put the story on paper that was in my head. It will never be published, because every time I go back and look at it, I cringe.

In the past eighteen months, I have released four novels, but what some of the newbies don’t understand is that those novels were written over a period of ten years. During those years, I devoured writing craft web sites, joined my local Romance Writers of America chapter meetings, learned about plot, point of view, characterization, backstory, foreshadowing – all the stuff I didn’t know about when I wrote the first manuscript. Yet I don’t regret doing the process backwards. It taught me how much I had yet to learn about the craft of writing.

Another major misconception I’ve heard is the idea that once your book is published, the marketing aspect can be taken care of by a few posts to your Facebook page and handing out a couple of hundred flyers. Wrong again. Most e-book authors spend several hours every single day marketing and promoting their books. It is essential to learn to navigate the social networks in a professional manner and observe the expected etiquette. This doesn’t mean you still can’t have fun online, but being known as “SuziethebigbootyAuthor” is no longer acceptable if you want to be taken seriously. Posting about how drunk you got at last night’s party gives readers and potential readers a negative impression you do not want as a published author.

Make it a daily habit of reading the top e-publishing blogs like:

My advice to new and aspiring authors is to put in the time it takes to become knowledgeable, so you don’t go out there looking crazy. Invest in preparing yourself for the journey. It will be well worth the effort.

Chicki’s new release, Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing, debuts on January 2, 2012 on Kindle and Nook. 

All of Chicki's books can be found at Amazon and Nook

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Writing and Reading Christmas Fiction

As a writer, I love this time of year when the spirit of Christmas is in the air and the snowflakes are falling and gift of giving is in full swing.

I have been fortunate enough to embody this in a number of Christmas-themed novels, including CHRISTMAS DIAMONDS, CHRISTMAS HEAT, and my two latest ones, CHRISTMAS WISHES: Laura's Story and PRIVATE LUAU. It has been fun to use the season and its many wonderful dynamics to my advantage in carving out tales of good tidings and joy that so many people can relate to.

As Christmas 2011has nearly come and gone, I am already looking ahead to Christmas 2012 and beyond to see what new and magical tales I can conjure up that says, "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas."

But perhaps even more satisfying to me than writing Christmastime fiction is reading it by other writers. Some classics immediately come to mind.

Obviously, A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens tops most lists. THE CHRISTMAS BOX by Richard Paul Evans is a must for as inspirational fiction. MRS. MIRACLE by Debbie Macomber was a delight, as was THE CHRISTMAS SHOES by Donna VanLiere. More recently, I enjoyed James Patterson's THE CHRISTMAS WEDDING.

It is definitely the most wonderful time of the year and I plan to take in at least one Christmas novel as I curl up on couch in front of fireplace and sip hot chocolate with the Christmas tree decorated and presents snuggled beneath.

What are your favorite Christmastime novels? Or nonfiction?

Happy Holidays to all!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Children's Book Signing

As a children's book author, I have a number of different issues to deal with than my compatriots who write for adults. Most of the issues are positive, for example, children are often more willing to suspend disbelief than adults. However, when it comes to marketing, life can get a little sticky.

Last Saturday I held a book signing for my latest book, Trapped in Dunston's Cave. Now, I have never planned a book signing for an adult book, but I can imagine my plans would circle around a staid location (a bookstore, a cafe, or something similar), wine and cheese for snacks and a quiet reading of the book followed (hopefully) by an orderly line of people waiting to sign and purchase a copy.

When I think of a children's book signing, the first few lines of Ogden Nash's poem Children's Party comes to mind:
May I join you in the doghouse, Rover?
I wish to retire till the party's over.
Since three o'clock I've done my best
To entertain each tiny guest.
My conscience now I've left behind me,
And if they want me, let them find me.

Parents and children arrived at the location I had chosen, the Nubuke Foundation here in Ghana which supports the Arts and does a lot of work with children and literacy. The children started colouring on the sheets that I provided to entertain them until we got started. This went well with one, two or three little ones, but once we got past four and five, the quiet, organised scene began to unravel as they decided to explore the garden.

It took us some time to round them all up. When we finally got them all seated in the right place at the same time, one child who had been sitting quietly for a while piped up,
"Can I go back to my colouring now?"

I told the children an interactive story and then got them to create a story of their own, line by line, one child at a time. They chose to create a story about a dinosaur which ate the narrator's sister. There was a lot of laughter before we were able to engender some sympathy for the sister and the story turned in a direction that led to her rescue.

After this, the children were released to colour some more and to make bookmarks that they could use as they read their books. They ran in the expansive garden, ate cup cakes and by all accounts had a great time.

I was exhausted at the end, but fully satisfied. I did not sell many books, however, I felt that the children had a very enjoyable experience that could help them to associate reading with fun.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Matter of Convention

I was at an SF/Fantasy convention a couple of weeks back. They had an autograph table set up in the dealer’s room for the author guests to use. I passed through the dealer’s room many times, and whenever I saw any of my fellow guest authors sitting at the autograph table alone I stopped and talked and bought one of their books.

I didn’t know any of these authors before the convention. Many of the books I bought from them may never get read. I’m sure they’re well written; it’s just that in a world of limited time they are not likely to make it to the top of my TBR pile. I’ve got a lot of friends who I know are writing good books that I’ll enjoy, and there are other authors who I don’t know but whose work I like. Those books are the ones that rise to the top of the heap.

Once my panel load slowed down, I went and sat at the autograph table for a couple of hours myself. A couple of folks I’d bought books from passed through. Most seemed to make an effort to avoid eye contact. I was trying to do the thing you do at autograph tables, smile and cross glances with folks who pass by. It didn’t work on my fellow authors, perhaps because they were so conscious of having done the same thing when theywere at the table.

One particular incident actually bothered me. I’d bought one author’s book at the table, for 19+ bucks. Later, while I was there with my books, none of which approached 19 dollars in cost, the same author came and sat down again. We chatted but he hardly gave my books a glance, and certainly did not buy one. He insisted I take his card, though, and then began grilling me about my publisher and what kind of deal I had with them. He was apparently unhappy with his publisher and was looking to switch. I suppose I was a bit troubled by not selling any books to fellow authors, but my interaction with that one specific author actually left me feeling a little unclean, a little used.

Then I started thinking that, instead of being irritated, maybe I should take the lack of reciprocity as a sign that I’m doing this writing thing all wrong. I understand that a writer’s objective is to sell their books, not spend more money than they take in on buying other authors’ books. That seems to translate into the need to be a bit mercenary. It means: SELL! Don’t BUY!

I’m not sure I can do this, though. I think too much about how nice it feels when someone expresses an interest in your work. I also know, intimately, how it feels to sit at a table with no takers for your wares. And how you still smile.

I guess I’m lucky to have a day job, that I don’t have to subsist on what I make from my writing. I don’t have to be mercenary. I'd love to hear from other writers about this kind of thing. How mercenary should we be? How do we seek a balance between supporting our own careers and supporting other writers?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Technology and me

When it comes to technology, I consider myself to be in the middle of the pack: savvy enough to know what’s out there but not enthusiastic enough to run out and get it. I believe technology should serve a practical purpose and so I never acquire something because it’s the hot item out there. I just never see the point of having a desktop, a laptop, an IPAD, an IPod a Nook and a Kindle all at the same time.

So two years ago when Verizon Fios gave us a voucher for a Netbook, I looked around and evaluated the technology that I already had. Both my husband and I had laptops and we both had desktops. The problem though, our desktop computers were outdated running on Windows 98 operating systems. Those platforms couldn’t even support most of the new programs. Oh yes, I thought a Netbook would be great for portability, but I had a fully functioning Dell Latitude laptop. So I decided what we needed was a new desktop, especially as my kid was now learning computers in school. So instead of the Netbook that I had drooled over before, I got a desktop computer.

It was great. Sleek, fast, just what I needed to give my writing a boost. There was one drawback: I wrote best in my bed late at night. So of course, after the novelty wore off, I was back to using my trusted old Dell Latitude laptop.

Fast forward two years. My wonderful laptop has all but given up on me. It is eight years old. The initial battery died a year ago. My back up battery died six months ago. I was still determined to use it. Of course I had to have it plugged in at all times. The problem with that is the minute it became unplugged, I lost all my work. Plus it took a full twenty minutes to booth up. Finally, as if things couldn’t get worst, the keys began to drop out one by one (thank goodness I’m a touch typist).

I decided it was time for a technology update. I wanted something for my writing. I wanted something portable that was small enough to fit in a pocketbook. I wanted something with a Windows platform. I also wanted an e-reader. My daughter who’s been harassing me for an IPAD for the longest time hounded me to get an IPAD or a tablet. I thought the tablets were cool and very portable, and they worked well as universal e-readers. But they were not as practical for what I do on a computer as I’d like.

Then I discovered the Dell Inspiron Duo. It’s a tablet. It’s a laptop. It has the portability and touch screen of a tablet, the size of a (slightly larger) e-reader. Most importantly, it’s a fully functioning laptop/notebook. After much deliberation, I purchased it. I love it. I can lug it around anywhere without having to lug a heavy computer bag. It supports everything I use my laptop for. It can even be used as a phone if you so desire (not that I’ll ever use it that way). Most of all it’s given my writing (and reading) a shot in the arm. So forget the Kindle, the Nook, the IPAD, and the laptop. I’ve got my Dell Inspiron Duo.

What about you…how do you go about acquiring new technology?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Taking the plunge

Many of my fellow Dorchester Leisure authors have done it. Several current Novel Spaces members have, too, including KeVin Killiany and Lynn Emery, and a former Novelnaut, Farrah Rochon, has been the latest to take that plunge. Are you curious yet? I'm talking about authors who were formerly published by traditional houses - and many of whom still are - taking the plunge into indie publishing.

I'm next, guys, and if you don't think this is a huge departure for all of us, then you have no idea how unthinkable the concept of publishing oneself used to be up to, oh, even one year ago - two at most. To quote The Next Web:

Indie publishing, the act of an individual person publishing a book, is not a new concept. In fact, for the last several decades such activities have been panned as ‘self-publishing,’ and dealt with an attached stigma that labelled any self-published author as second-tier, and not quite good enough to find a ‘real publisher.’

But everything in the publishing industry - an industry that has been badly broken for a long time - has changed: the technology, the markets, the distribution, and the newly empowered writers/authors who are blazing trails and managing their writing careers themselves. I don't expect to immediately start smiling all the way to the bank despite the good news from authors like Gemma Halliday who are kind enough to share their indie sales figures; I'm aware that many writers who are making significant money by publishing themselves have extensive backlists that generate most of the sales and stimulate sales of their new books.

What I do expect is to experience the satisfaction of self-reliance; whatever comes of this venture will be up to me, not to an army of intermediaries only tenuously connected to my work and who control every aspect of its publication while I stand on the sidelines, invisible, impotent and in the dark about everything from pricing to print run, release date to cover image. To paraphrase Lynn Emery, it's all about control. I no longer feel ambivalent about my writing and publishing ventures. I feel empowered, positive and energised - a startling contrast to the way I've felt over the last three years. Stay tuned - and wish me luck.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Piracy Pirates and Ebooks

A fellow author sent myself and a few other authors an email about a site that had free downloads of ebooks. Two of us in particular discovered that our books were included on the site. Needless to say we were not happy. I posted a reminder on Facebook that day that we do not write for free. Well, at least that's not the intention.

First thing the next day I sent an email to my publisher who forwarded it to their piracy department. I'm sure there were other authors on my publisher's list who were also on the site. Well, by the end of the day, that site was gone, poof, pow, see ya!

We were elated! Not sure if it was the publisher or some other reason or combination of reasons that did the trick, but the link is not valid (hopefully that's not temporary).

After that, the other author from the group who realized her books were on that site and I discussed the fact the there are other sites as well. She found one other that include hers, and I found two that include mine.

Is it like killing one single ant, when there are eggs just waiting to hatch? There are so many people who do this, and being that ebooks are a sign of the times, how do we really monitor this, or should we even bother? I'd like to think that I will report each site that I discover, also handling it myself if it's a self-pubbed title, but I also wonder if it will be like killing that one lone ant.

There are so many other aspects to writing and publishing that we must give attention to. And just as with the music industry, and movies, books are obviously not excluded from feeling the hit of piracy.

What are your thoughts on how to monitor this or best deal with it, if at all?

And still, I write!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Suspension of Disbelief

My daughter took me to see Immortals Wednesday. I was reminded of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, Allen Drury's Washington, just about anything by James Lee Burke, several columns about verisimilitude in writing by Lawrence Block, and of course Naked Came the Stranger. (Really must do a column on NCtS one day.)

In writing Immortals, the Parlapanides brothers did to ancient Greece and its mythology what Stephanie Meyer did to vampire and werewolf traditions. Though the gods do not sparkle in sunlight, the five extras from 90210 who represent the pantheon do wear gold lamé and pout when thoughtful. They also have more trouble with the Prime Directive than Captain Kirk. In Immortals Greek villages are Pueblos carved from cliffs hundreds of feet above the sea – and the Hellenic "wine dark sea" is actually dark with oil that makes everything except the Virgin Oracle's scarlet gown look like Prince William Sound. I was annoyed by the Titans being about five feet tall and jumping around like rabid flying monkeys but got a kick out of Athens being fortified by a model of Hoover Dam (one of the characters actually says it was originally built as a dam). My favorite bit was the horizon-spanning salt desert covering the heart of Greece where nothing grows and even the buildings are carved from salt, but which inexplicably has fresh water oases; this is the location of the salt mine. (My daughter's favorite was the people being tortured in the iron bull breathing through rubber hoses attached to plastic masks held in place by elastic straps – but I see that more as a production issue than part of the storytelling.) And – though Frieda Pinto's naked bottom does have a cameo – it's the storytelling, the plot's inconsistencies, that reminded me of NCtS. (Example: Hyperion spends the first few scenes torturing priests and sacking villages looking for the Virgin Oracle. Survivors are sent to the salt mine, in the middle of the salt desert, where he's been keeping the Virgin Oracle prisoner for weeks. No fear, she leads a prison break, so perhaps Hyperion was just being proactive in his torturing and sacking.)

Despite all of that, Immortals was a guilty-pleasure blast. Freed from the constraints of plot, history, or logic, director Singh was able to focus on overwhelming our senses with wide-screen spectacle. Everything from special effects to costumes to sets to dialog is over the top without slipping into campy. While it seemed clear no one in front of the cameras gave much thought to acting, every man jack of them devoted their hearts and minds and various other body parts to the cause of entertaining the heck out of us. And they delivered.

Which of course relates back to Evan Hunter (McBain), Allen Drury, James Lee Burke, and Lawrence Block. Allen Drury loved Washington – the city and the politics – and when his characters are in the halls of Congress or the streets of Georgetown you know he has seen every detail he describes. My impression is Hunter loved New York City, but he did not want to restrict himself to the reality of the place; the city of McBain's 87th precinct is never identified but it is made up of neighborhoods and locales lifted from NYC then repositioned to serve the needs of his stories. Lawrence Block also loves NYC and sets his stories there, but he fudges just a bit on the geography. I'm told you can always find the neighborhood, maybe even the street corner identified in his story, but you'll never find the exact hotel or bar or alley where the action takes place. Even so, New Yorkers I know aver he gets the city, they know he's one of them when they read his stories. (John D MacDonald did the same thing with south Florida; you'd get lost following his directions, but he got the feel of my home in the 1960s exactly right.) I've spent a total of three weeks in New Orleans – the last thirty-five years ago – and I have no idea how accurate James Lee Burke's descriptions are. But the man has a gift for description that amazes, and if the reality of the region doesn't match what he's created, then – to paraphrase John Milius's opening to The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean – if this isn't the way it was, it's the way it should have been.

And that's important. We are storytellers, not historians, not cartographers, not scientists or biographers. Everything we do, every tool that comes to hand, must serve the story – that is our craft. We should respect facts, we should use them whenever possible. Not just because they're true but because they are the hooks on which we hang our fiction. But we have to use facts in a way that strengthens the story and moves it forward. In teaching English as a second language I frequently returned to the theme of the difference between literal meaning and contextual meaning. (For example, whenever an alarm goes on, most English speakers say it went off.)
Sometimes we have to subsume the literal facts to the facts of the story. This can be as subtle as Lawrence Block capturing the spirit of a neighborhood while using addresses that don't exist or as in-your-face as Tarsem Singh choreographing a Jet-Li-esque kung-fu smackdown between the gods and the Titans. If we do our jobs right, our readers will willingly set objective reality aside and join us on our journey.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Loving The Writer's Life

My niece and nephew, Christmas 2007

Thanksgiving 2011 is distant memory, but I'm still counting my writer blessings. A big one has to be the family I was born in, bless their southern eccentric hearts! Southerners love to tell a tall tale. My uncles could lie, I mean tell a good story with the best of 'em. But great storytelling is an equal opportunity skill, because my aunts, older cousins and grandmother were just as entertaining. The holidays have always been a time of family coming together, and as a kid that meant eavesdropping on the adults. Of course there is an art to listening in. You have to be a chameleon- blend into the woodwork or furniture so that the grown-ups forget you're there. That way you can hear the really juicy stuff. Ah yes, the holidays packed my gift bag with loads of material for books.

Here are a few tales from warm family gatherings:

One of my maternal uncles used to work for a man who was very rich. This man's wife used to have strange "spells". That was the polite southern belle term for it. My uncle put it more bluntly, she was nuts. This rich man, from an old southern family, put up with his wife but just barely. He'd married her for money and her family name, both sets of parents expected them to wed you see. Translation- you want to inherit the family loot? Marry the right person. Anyway after many years a tragic accident happened. The poor wife wandered into the pond on the family estate and drowned. No doubt during one of her "spells". Then my uncle at the end of this sad story leaned forward, his voice low and said, "I don't think she ended up face down in that pond by accident." A murder mystery!

One of my ancestors (great-great-great grandmother I think, the story is murky) was a Choctaw Indian bought as a slave before the Civil War. Her master was a doctor from Manchester, England. They had two sons. Reportedly he never married, and doted on their mother. He died and left his sons his land. There was outrage from the white population when one son defiantly tried to petition the court for his inheritance. With help from the sheriff, they set out to kill him, but he escaped into the frontier (Opelousas, land of Jim Bowie). No one knows what happened to him after that. Rich source for a sweeping historical saga!

Finally from me, a heartwarming memory of Christmas. My father worked for the local company, Gulf States Utilities. Each year they would sponsor a Christmas party for the children of employees. What fun, but not because of the toys. No, the fun was watching "Santa". GSU hired Santa to give toys to every child. He'd sit on a stage in an auditorium, and all the kids would line up to get their gifts after a brief program.  Sometimes our Santa had a nip of "cheer" before he got to the program. One Santa would break into blues songs like, "Merry Christmas, baby. Ya sho been good to me!" Another one would admonish rambunctious kids not to be naughty, with a gruff, "Hey, stop actin' a fool!" or "Shut up, and sit your butt down!" Gotta love old Santa, huh?

I wish you a Merry Christmas. I hope you have wonderful family memories, great food and a few stories to tell.

Lynn Emery
For a spicy Louisiana holiday romance check out

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest author Genella deGrey: What I did on my summer vacation

Last August, I boldly went where I hadn't gone before:  To Hawaii. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I knew I was up for a feast of the senses, which of course was the most exciting part. The least exciting part was that I knew I was going to be alone. Now don’t get me wrong, I'm not a scaredy-cat, I can drive great distances alone, go to downtown LA by myself, I can even navigate my way through Hollywood at night to go clubbing... I just wanted to have someone to share it all with, ya know? I can’t help it; I judge the monumental experiences of my life by how romantic they were. I totally understand that this could be considered a personality flaw to which I would shrug my shoulders and utter, “Deal with it, if ye be a man.” ;)

Now, the universe doesn’t always give us what we want, but it’s really good at giving us what we need . . . and someday it will become clear to me why I spent four glorious days in my own company. *eye roll*

Anyway, today I’d like to explore a couple of non-romantic reasons to “vacate” - especially geared toward writers - the position we normally stay in for long periods of time.

So, why step away from work/the computer?
Well, one reason could be to encounter views like these:

Now, that’s not to say that you NEED to head to an exotic locale where the landscape alone causes your spine to turn to jelly. Even a trip to a local park can be a refreshing break.

Go ahead, try some alone time. Don’t get me wrong, I love my 7 year-old as if he were my right arm, but sometimes I need my “me” time. And even though it seems I crave romance at every turn, there are times I need to get away from it all (keeping in mind that I live in a city with about eight million other people.)

Even when I was a little kid, I used to climb up onto the back wall, sit and stare at the sky and just ... think. In my high school years I would climb up the fire escape of our condo to the roof and do the same. Was I taking a breather, did I need the quiet time or my own personal space? Whatever the reason, this alone time served to sooth my soul.

These days as an adult, sunset is my favorite time of day. There is something inherently calming to me about a beautiful sky on the verge of night. Here are a few pix I took in Hawaii as evening fell:

Ah, just looking at those shots makes me feel a chill.

A change of routine for writers in and of itself once in a while can turn into an essay of sorts – certainly something you can tuck away to use at another date.  This sort of exercise is essential for those of us who create sometimes entire worlds out of nothing. We need new or different sights, smells and various other uncommon-to-us stimuli so that our writing doesn’t become stale or over-used. Try this: take a blanket, a snack and just chill for an hour or two. You will be surprised at the sundry new perceptions you pick up on. Just be sure to escape with the intention of bringing something new to your awareness. Whether you head to the park or sit in the middle of a shopping mall or even the local coffee shop, take a note book or journal and jot down what you are feeling, seeing, smelling, etc. Then do it with your eyes closed and things will shift a bit, making you more aware – you may even find something you didn’t when your eyes were open. You might be inspired with a new story line or character, but whatever the case, I guarantee you will find a place in one of your WIPs to place bits of this particular sensory exercise.

Venture out, do something different, surround yourself with things and people under normal circumstances unknown to yourself – and don’t forget to take notes. You might find something in the process that will surprise you. You might even find  . . . YOU!

Remember when attempting this exercise – no, you don’t have to check with your doctor – LOL, but where ever you go, whatever you do, even if it’s to gain a sense of clarity, do it with a specific intention in mind. This will put you into the mind-set of achieving that which you wish to accomplish.

Happy reading, happy writing and happy holidays everyone!
Genella deGrey's website 
Her Facebook fan page

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dial D for Dialogue

As a longtime writer, I have always believed that the heart of a story is crisp, right to the point dialogue.

I am all for strong narrative, description, scenery, thoughts, and other elements that make for a great novel. However, what comes out of the mouths of characters can make or break the book.

For instance, if your protagonist just goes on and on while saying little of substance, it can definitely weigh down the novel and cause the plot to drag.
On the other hand, if a character has something worth saying, that can be said in as few words as possible while still moving the story along, then that will hold the attention of the reader and give the writer something to build on.

Beyond that, I enjoy hearing what people have to say in fiction, as opposed to telling us what they are doing and thinking. I believe this breathes life into any plot and make the characters seem real. The latter is especially true when the dialogue comes from the heart or soul of character and is spoken in real language rather than scripted words as is often found in screenplays and teleplays.

Do you prefer more or less dialogue as a writer or reader?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Writer's Crossroads

Three children had fallen into the crater of a volcano and I had no way to help them get out.

To make matters worse, they were my children, or they had been for the last few weeks and four chapters of my WIP, the fourth book in the Caribbean Adventure Series.

I was as stuck as they were, unable to move the adventure forward. I was suffering from the much discussed writer's block. Finally, after staring at the page for many more days, (dare I say weeks?) than I care to mention, I remembered a bit of advice about overcoming a block. That writer suggested that one solution to writer's block was to rewrite the scene, come at it from a different angle.

So, I, very reluctantly, took the kids back the way they came out of the volcano and took a second shot. It worked. This time they found a solution to that issue and moved forward to the next.

What techniques do you use to kick start your writing if it stalls?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Suspense Part Two

In my last post, I talked about “quick” and “slow” suspense. Quick suspense is fast off the page by calling the reader’s attention immediately to a threat, like a ticking bomb. However, quick suspense depends more on universal threats than character specific ones, and will always be weaker than “slow” suspense, which develops when characters the reader cares about are threatened. Below are some ways that, I think, writers can create the slower and superior type of suspense. These are techniques I used in my thriller, Cold in the Light.

Characters need to be vulnerable for slow suspense to develop, and they need to be sympathetic. This is why many thriller and horror writers use children as characters, and why women are often victims in such stories. These types of characters are at least perceived as being more vulnerable, and therefore evoke sympathy in the reader. A threat against a character the reader cares about is far more effective than one against a character the reader doesn’t.

Most thrillers and horror novels have some characters whose sole purpose is to get killed to show how dangerous the villain is. While the loss of such characters does help establish the villain persona, they do little to increase slow suspense. What does increase slow suspense is the loss of a character who the reader already cares about. If one such character is lost, the ante is raised for all the characters, and the reader perceives the threats as more serious for everyone. The more genuine the risks appear to the reader, the more slow suspense increases.

The environment in which characters move is, in many cases, at least as important as the characters and action. In Cold in the Light, for example, much of the action takes place at night and in the woods. The villains are at home in both. The heroes are not. Harsh environments put another strain on the character; they make his or her life harder, and if the reader cares about them, this ups the ante for the reader.

Since the days of matinee serials, and before, writers have known the value of a cliffhanger for creating tension and suspense. Page turners are page turners because the page the reader just finished generates a “need to know” feeling for what happens next--on the following page. But cliffhangers work best if they come out of goal directed behavior for the characters.
For heroes, cliffhangers occur when they meet an obstacle on their way to a goal. It seems like they are about to reach safety and, “boom,” something gets in the way. The reader is left wondering what the characters are going to do to get around this new problem.

In contrast, cliffhangers happen with villains when obstacles are removed from their path. Since the reader’s hopes lie with the heroes, when the villain acquires a new weapon, or some knowledge, or some advantage, this rackets up the reader’s suspense. The reader wonders: “What is he/she/it going to do with their new information or new weapon?”

When seen from the point of view of a character, the details they focus on can do much to increase suspense. Imagine a mall. Not unusual at all. But this mall has no people in it. It’s empty, totally empty. Silent. You pass the food court and see food sitting on the tables. Coffee still steams. Food looks half eaten. But no one is around. Then comes a sound, a boom boom, boom boom. You try to place it. It seems familiar. And you realize, it sounds like a giant beating heart. Choosing the right details guides the reader’s perceptions, and their mood. It sets them up to wonder, “what comes next?” And that is the “heart” of suspense.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Procrastination is the thief of time

For the second (or is it third?) year in a row my post falls on Thanksgiving Day. I originally was going to post on things I am thankful for, traditions and holidays in general. However, Liane’s post, Carpe Diem - Again, struck a note with me. Why? Because I recently missed a great opportunity.

My mother is an excellent storyteller. I spent years sitting at her feet listening to her tell old folk stories animatedly. And though the stories were repetitive, I could listen to them over and over again. I had always dreamed of writing and publishing some of those old stories. Indeed I have written a few. But one of my other dreams was to preserve those stories as told by my mother in her dramatic fashion so that my kids could hear them.

For years I procrastinated. I blamed it on the distance. I haven’t lived in the same area as my mother since 1993. I waited to get a video recorder. I waited for when we were without the distraction of a million family members talking all at once. I waited…

Well my mother is now eighty-one years old and has survived a stroke and a heart attack. I decided it was time to get those stories. So for two weeks when she visited me, I got my video and audio recorder and I tried to get her to tell those old favorite stories with all the gusto that she used to when I was little. But there was a problem: my mother can no longer remember the stories. I had to prompt her and remind her of the stories. I knew there were many more than the few I remembered, but my mother was unable to recall them. I had waited much too long.

I can think of a few cliché’s to sum it up. Chief among them is “procrastination is the thief of time.” I am thankful that I got a few stories out of her, but disappointed that many of the stories are lost forever since the culture of oral storytelling is quickly disappearing.

So I’ll join Liane in saying, “Carpe Diem.”

And well, since it is Thanksgiving, enjoy family, friends, feasts, and turkey. Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Carpe diem - again

Raymond on the peak of 
El Tucuche, Nov. 2010   
My first piano teacher was a short, rotund, elderly nun. Sister Lucy was so ravaged with what I now believe to be osteoporosis that her upper back was U-shaped and her chin rested on her chest. She could barely manage to show me the proper placement of fingers on keys, but her keystrokes as she demonstrated the movements were strong and sure. She had clear grey eyes magnified by her glasses and was a gentle soul. I think she came from Ireland like the other foreign nuns at St. Joseph's Convent and it was under her tutelage, in one of the tiny music rooms that barely managed to fit a piano, two stools and a metronome, that I discovered the joy of playing something that at least approximated music. I distinguished myself under her guidance - far more so than under her successor, a chain-smoking, gentlemanly English lady who terrified me.

I graduated from high school and went out into the not-so-wide world of work in the same town where I had gone to school, and every once in awhile I'd remember sweet Sister Lucy and resolve to go and visit her. I never got around to it, and when I heard that she had died, along with remorse at my procrastination, I began to understand that for most young people, the reality and inevitability of death is not a concept that can readily be grasped. I realized then that putting off a visit to an elderly person means that when you're ready to make the effort, the person might be gone - forever.

Which brings me to November 2010 and an e-mail I received from an elderly gentleman here in Trinidad. I had written a blog post about hiking my favourite mountain, El Tucuche. He told me he had discovered the post and enjoyed it tremendously because that was also his favourite hike and he had scaled the peak more than 100 times in his ninety years. In fact, he had celebrated his ninetieth birthday just weeks before by climbing El Tucuche once again, a feat that attracted quite a bit of media coverage.

When I finally wrapped my head around what my new friend, Raymond, had achieved, I told him he had become my inspiration: I could think of nothing I'd love more than to be able to repeat his feat if I lived to his age. We began corresponding, found each other on Facebook, and he invited me to join him on his next hike in early 2011. This one would be to Paria Waterfall, a lovely trek along the north coast and into the forest that I had undertaken several times in my earlier hiking years. I decided to work on improving my fitness so that when Raymond and his group next hiked El Tucuche I'd be ready.

The hike to Paria was postponed four times. We had an unseasonably rainy dry season and the weather simply refused to cooperate with our plans. When the hike finally came off I didn't go; Raymond had probably tired of having to call and tell me about postponements and didn't want to disappoint me again. The next time we communicated was in July when my niece graduated and he left a gracious comment on her photo on my Facebook page. By this time the true rainy season was in full pour and hiking was out of the question. The months flew by imperceptibly.

Three weeks ago Raymond contacted me on Facebook and told me he had suffered a heart attack three months before, but was on the mend and spending several days a week in his store. I was assailed by a sense of urgency; I told my friend I'd visit him at his store that week. He said he was looking forward to finally meeting me face to face. I asked if he would be at the store on Thursday or Friday. When two days passed and I did not hear from him I felt a deep foreboding. That Friday night I left a message on his page: "Well, maybe another week. Thinking of you and hoping you're okay, Raymond." The next time I visited his Facebook page I learned he had died on November 10, three days after his ninety-first birthday.

It felt like Sister Lucy all over again. I will never be able to hike and not think of Raymond pounding those trails in his nineties. He is indeed my inspiration to seize the day and to understand that living fully has no correlation with the number of birthdays accumulated.

Write that book. Sail that ocean. Climb those mountains; Raymond climbed them at 90.

In memory of Raymond "Don Ramos" Banfield, hiker, former Spanish teacher and vice-principal of Presentation College, mentor of many, practitioner of healthy living. I will climb El Tucuche again, and I know he'll be walking right there beside me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

World Fantasy Con: Can You Mix Science into Fantasy"

I went to World Fantasy Convention (WFC) 2011 in San Diego at the end of October, and the second panel I attended was on mixing science into fantasy.

The panelists were Greg Benford, Yves Meynard, Brent Weeks, L.E. Modisett, Darryl Murphy, and Edward Willett.

I did not stay for the whole panel because I wanted to get a good seat at the animal show. (Yes! The San Diego Zoo brought exotic animals to WFC, and for an hour talked about their adaptations. Very cool.) But even in what I attended, I learned several interesting things I'd like to share with you.

Edward Willett says that he likes to write fantasy in which the magic does not break physical laws of nature. However, after his steampunk fantasy was published, he received criticism that by having coal- and gas-based inventions that could be built and work in real life, he had taken all the magic out of the story.

Most or all of the panelists agreed that magic in fantasy should have rules (at least in the author's mind; it's okay if the characters themselves do not understand the rules) and that the rules should make sense. One panelist pointed out that if magic is not given rules, explicit or implied, then tension and drama are reduced because anything can happen (similar to the tension-draning effects of deus ex machina solutions in literature in general). That is such a great observation that I will repeat it again:
If magic is not given rules, explicit or implied, then tension and drama are reduced because anything can happen.
The panelists agreed, though, that some authors and readers particularly like figuring out rule-based magic, while for other readers, the wonder of the magical world is what they read for. Harry Potter's world may not make sense, but who wouldn't want to attend Hogwart's Academy?

Willett said that George R.R. Martin says that magic stands in for all the things in our real universe that we can't control. I searched today for the quote and didn't find it. However, I did find a recent interview with GRRM in which he says that for magic to work in fiction, it has to be mysterious. He does not believe in creating elaborate rules. (Full interview here.)

Modisett thinks also that magic especially appeals to people who wish things were other than they are. (Shauna's note: Perhaps this partly explain fantasy's appeal to children, who are loaded with so many unwanted rules and restrictions physically and socially.)

Personally, I prefer rule-based magic. It usually takes me out of a story if, for example, Michelle Pfeifer transforms into a twelve-pound hawk with nothing left over, breaking the law of the conservation of mass-energy. But if a story is good, I am willing to suspend belief. I loved Ladyhawke despite the unbelievable magic and many anachronisms.

What about you? Which type of fantastical story do you prefer? And why?

Los Angeles Appearance

I will be at the Los Angeles Science Fiction Convention (LOScon) this Friday, November 25. I speak on the panel "10 Beginning Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them" from noon to 2 pm; I sign copies of Like Mayflies in a Stream from 3:00 pm to whenever the next scheduled author shows up; and I will be on the panel "Short, Short Stories" (about ultraflash fiction) from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm. I hope to see you there.

Until next time (December 6)!

—Shauna Roberts