Monday, March 28, 2011

Dead Authors I Would Like to have a Conversation With

As a longtime author, I have had the pleasure to meeting face to face or through the Internet and phone many authors of prominence , as well as those lesser known.
I was thinking to myself the day: If I were able to travel back in time and have a conversation with authors I have admired who are no longer among the living, who might they be?

Given that there are many writers I have admired or been inspired by over the years, narrowing these down to say, ten or so, is not easy. But I wanted to not only keep the number reasonable, but also zoom in on dead authors who most left an impression on me--be it by their style, personality, genre, success, or other feature that defined the writer.

Without going into detail on choices or necessarily placing in order, here are the ten deceased writers I would most like to converse with over a cup of tea or coffee:

1. Daphne du Maurier -- I love her novels, particularly Rebecca, and the times in which she wrote them.

2. Thomas Hardy -- his novels and short stories are marvelous, with Tess of the d'Urbervilles, one of my all time favorites.

3. Dashiell Hammett has long been a favorite of mine with his hardboiled novels, such as The Thin Man, inspiring other novelists who followed.

4. Chester Himes was great with his crime and mystery novels, many dealing with racism--with If He Hollers Let Him Go an interesting read and better than the movie adaptation.

5. Jane Austen wrote some wonderful romance novels, some of which I have also enjoyed the screen adaptations, such as Pride and Prejudice.

6. Charles Dickens was certainly a terrific English writer during the Victorian era, with A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield two of his best works. I especially enjoyed the first version of the former as a movie as well.

7. H.G. Wells, the great English author of science fiction novels, with The Time Machine one of my favorite all time novels and movies.

8. Sidney Sheldon wrote a number of good novels of romance and suspense, often featuring strong females. I especially liked The Other Side of Midnight. Would be nice to talk to him as well about one of my favorite TV shows he created, I Dream of Jennie.

9.Katherine Woodiwiss---I've enjoyed her historical romance and romantic suspense novels, as has my wife, such as Petals on the River.

10. Mark Twain--who wouldn't want to meet him and ask about the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, controversies and all?

If you could go back in time to have a conversation with some of your favorite authors, who would they be? What would you like to say?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Greatest Movies Ever. Or Not

Lana and I watched a show on TV the other night about the greatest movies of all time, as voted by—well—people like me and you. There were a number of different lists, greatest overall, greatest musical, greatest action/suspense, etc. Apparently a group of “experts” narrowed the choices down initially and then people were allowed to vote for the top five in each category. Gone with the Wind was first in the greatest overall category, which told me one thing right away: More women than men voted in the poll. I’ve never actually even seen the movie and have no plans to do so. The vote did nothing to change my mind that I probably wouldn’t consider it the greatest movie of all time.

I was much more interested in the picks for greatest Science Fiction flicks of all time. Here’s the TV voters list:

5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
4. The Matrix
3. Avatar
2. E.T.
1. Star Wars

This list is, of course, incorrect! Although, the only real travesty here is Avatar, which does not deserve to be in the top ten even.

The “correct” list(s). That is, “my” lists are as follows:

General SF:
5. Jurassic Park
4. Blade Runner
3. Star Wars
2. The Matrix
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The first three of these are separated by a bare fraction from each other. And honorable mentions in this category include War of the Worlds (Original version), E.T., Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes, and Logan’s Run.

5. Predator
4. The Terminator
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (first version)
2. The Thing (Carpenter version)
1. Alien

The first four of these are very close, and honorable mentions that come very close to unseating number 5 are The Road Warrior, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Aliens.

I also struggled a bit with some assignments. Does Jurassic Park go with general SF or SF/Horror/Thriller? The Matrix is certainly a thriller with strong elements of horror. In the end, though, I didn’t think the horror elements of either were the primary strength of these movies. So there you have it, the TV lists and the “true” lists. I’m sure everyone will agree! Feel free to tell me how much you agree. :)

Friday, March 25, 2011

The finance of romance… a characters’ POV

I am a writer. I write poetry and short stories, I dabble in kids’ fiction, I write culturally based short stories and of course there is the writing I do for my day job. But I published two romance novels. Consequently, I am a romance novelist. It doesn’t matter how many other genres of stories reside in my head or on my hard drive… nobody sees it. What matters is the material that I have published. So I am a romance writer.

What makes a romance interesting? I know many people have different views, but one common thread to an interesting romance is strong lovable characters. But have you noticed that most characters in romance novels are financially secure? If they are not there already, they get there by the end of the story, or they marry someone who is.

I have noticed a little more diversity in the financial backgrounds of lead characters in romance novels recently. Some novelists make their characters rich and famous. They travel to exotic cities with nary a care for cost. Other characters represent the upper middle class. They are successful, educated, and financially independent and just need a partner to complete the fairy tale. This is supposed to inspire us into believing their lifestyle and their love is attainable to us. Then there are the characters who struggle financially. These characters almost invariably find love with someone more financially stable or out and out rich. It is rare for the hero and heroine to end up poor and broke at the end of the romance, even if they have each other.

I’ve always wondered why the characters in a romance are never a pair of losers who find love. Why don’t we see romance between two homeless people? Or two people who are just broke and struggling, living in subsidized housing and barely making ends meet? And I’m not talking about a back story where the person was struggling but has overcome the obstacles and now have their own business; or where the homeless wins a lottery when he finds a ticket on the park bench.

The answer: expectations. In a romance we expect a happy ending. Not just in finding love, but in all aspects of their lives. We are rooting for that poor girl to snag the tycoon. The readers really want that feel good Cinderella story. And the publishers know this. They outline set guidelines as to what constitute a romance novel. One publisher states in the guidelines, “The hero and heroine should be role models—upwardly mobile and educated individuals that our readers can admire.”

Don’t the uneducated fall in love? Shouldn’t we have characters that people from all walks of life can identify with? And when I write my romance stories, am I somehow perpetuating the myth that only the upward mobile, the successful and the rich find or even deserve true love? What are your thoughts on this?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why I write

I know you think I feed my Internet addiction with Amazon wish lists chock full of delectable perfumes and femme fatale shoes. Well, you're right, but that's not the half of it. The Internet brings me everything I find fascinating: info on 'supermoon'; the last three US elections that kept me glued to news and commentaries for so many months; the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis in Japan, brought to my desk in high definition living colour; the uprisings in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia; and now, the contretemps in Libya.

There's something about Gadhafi that has caught my imagination since my youth: his flamboyant good looks (well, in his youth), his charisma, his refusal to be cowed by either the military or media (read 'propaganda') might of his enemies, primarily the US. I have the same sneaking admiration for Chavez of Venezuela, and open admiration for Cuba's Castro. (I've learned from my time spent in South Florida that if I stood in the middle of Miami and shouted the latter I'd be dispatched to the hereafter in short thrift.) Crunch the numbers and you might well find that far, far more innocent civilians have been murdered by the soi-disant protectors of 'freedom' and 'democracy' than by the aforementioned allegedly heinous dictators/leaders.

So, I've been refreshing my memory of the convoluted, violent relationship between Libya and the US and the Internet obligingly puts it all at my fingertips - the history, the facts, the conspiracy theories. The 1986 US attack on this sovereign state and attempted murder of Gadhafi, Operation El Dorado Canyon, interested me in particular; it was so controversial that Spain, France and Italy all denied the US overflight rights and use of their continental bases for the attack.

That time, Gadhafi and his family rushed out of their residence moments before the bombs dropped. What saved them? A telephone call from Malta's prime minister about unauthorized aircraft flying over Maltese airspace heading south towards Tripoli. I know Gadhafi isn't a saint - but then, neither are the powers that have wanted him dead for so long. Murder is murder, no matter what the perpetrators, state or individual, want to call it.

This isn't supposed to be a political diatribe. My point is that the more I read, see and learn, the more disgusted and horrified I am at the powers that run this world, that spout ideological rhetoric but which are really motivated by economics and power-lust. It's a process I've been through again and again. For awhile, I'm fascinated and can't turn away; before long I'm overwhelmed and depressed by people's gullibility, including my own, by the change that never comes, by all the hypocrisy, aggression and spilt blood.

This state of mind is not healthy for me and sooner of later I find, to paraphrase the poet William Wordsworth, that the world is too much with me. It is then that I feel the need to tear myself away from the danse macabre and return to a psychic space where goodness, justice and fair play win the day, and where I control all the outcomes.

That's why I write.

Footnote 1:
Normally reliable sources from the Library of Congress to
Time, Business Week, The Wall Street Journal and New York Review of Books (among others) can't seem to agree on the spelling of the colonel's name. Take your pick: Qaddhafi, Qaddafi, Gaddafi, Kaddafi, Khadafy, Qadhafi, Qadaffi, Gadaffi, Qathafi, Gadaafi or Qadhdhafi.

Footnote 2:
For a different perspective on the Libya situation, here's an insightful commentary from Bombing Libya: 1986 - 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Change of Heart

I was talking to a friend tonight about changes in my writing over the last ten years. I finally see myself as having changed from a wordsmith to a storyteller. I used to start with how the story was told, reveled in the use of clever phrases to achieve effect, and spent hours fine-tuning phrases. Somewhere in re-writing my first novel from top to bottom, I started streamlining the language I used, and finding myself saying more with less, and letting the reader follow the story in something more like real time. There were times when I could afford to drop back into longer, more lyrical passages that allowed me to explore a character or setting in greater depth, but my basic style had become cleaner, leaner and even meaner when it had to be.

Knowing how to use words first gave me a broad palette to work from, and in my new mode, I find myself more sparing in its use than I was ten years ago. For now, leading with what is happening to whom and where is working for me better than, “What is the first line?” That’s still important, but it comes from my moment, not the other way around. I know that may change again, and welcome that. One of the things I loved most about Truman Capote was that even after enormous critical and commercial success he chose to reinvent himself as a writer and learn his art from the ground up again. It’s a view of art that allows for growth and renewal.

I enjoy the writer I am more than I used to, and look forward to what changes lie ahead. There was a quote I saw in the Times once and clipped out, but it was never attributed, about seeing writing as a great rock and that any effective work has to take the form of shattering it with the hammer of your mind...I had a copy of the quote over my desk for years, but it’s only now that I see how hard you have to break down everything you know to make everything new again.

I’m sure one day the rush I feel with the way I work now will subside and seem dull and commonplace -- that’s when I hope I have the courage to make a leap of faith again. What about you? What do you do to recharge your creative engine?

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Exercise Problem

Thumbing through the newest Quilter's Home quilting magazine last night, I came across a survey of readers that asked about their favorite form of exercise. Twenty-one percent preferred quilting to any other "exercise." Seven percent chose "wine glass lifting" and seven percent said "coach potatoing." Only "running/walking" came in higher than "quilting." The writers among you can probably guess why: Creative people get new ideas when walking.

I know exercise is good for people in general and writers in particular (sends oxygen to the brain, builds stamina for long writing sessions, strengthens arm muscles so you can type longer, helps you live longer so you get more written), but I still resent the time it takes away from my writing.

It occurred to me that if quilting counts as exercise if one moves the ironing board to another room or rearranges heavy stacks of fabrics, we can start applying minutes spent on our writing-associated activities to our daily exercise goals. For example, all of the following burn calories and some build muscle as well:
  • pacing
  • fidgeting
  • drumming fingers on the desk
  • moving reference books from one spot to another
  • shouting and pummeling the air when a story gets rejected
  • shouting and pummeling the air when a story gets accepted
  • getting out the Oxford English Dictionary to look up a word
  • opening office supplies multiply and tightly packaged in thick plastic
  • ripping open ink cartridge packages
  • moving the printer to reach the secret area to clear out jams
  • getting down books that live on the top shelf of a bookcase and later putting them away
  • loading cartons of printer paper into the car and then carrying them from the car to the office
  • procrastinating by ironing, carrying out the trash, unloading the dishwasher, etc.
What have I missed? Are there things you do while writing that should count as exercise?

See you again on April 4, when I blog at Novel Spaces again.

—Shauna Roberts

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reversion of Rights

After twelve years in the business, I've had the rights to two books reverted back to me. In 2008, once I realized The Chocolate Ship was out of print (originally printed in 2003), I contacted the legal department at HarperCollins and requested reversion of my rights - also, Something He Can Feel was reverted back to me late last year. In 2009, I self-published a revised trade and e-book version of The Chocolate Ship, and released an e-book version of Something He Can Feel just this month. I plan to do the same for each of my other backlist titles.

I've been told some publishers regularly order very small print runs, keeping the license term from expiring by keeping author's titles in print.

Would you prefer that a publisher continues to print your book, even in small amounts and keep it available, or would you prefer to have a time period on the rights, limiting it to a certain period of time as opposed to an open-ended term?

Do you think you might have a title that's out of print, yet you haven't inquired as to the status? I know Hot Boyz was out of print for a short period of time, yet when I inquired, HarperCollins decided to reprint it in another format.

If retaining our rights could improve our financial situation, I say we need to be aware and look out for each opportunity to gain more control, especially with the growing popularity of electronic publishing opportunities. However, it is also important to keep our books available to readers for as long as possible, traditional or self-published, as opposed to simply retaining our rights only to retire our works that will never again see the light of day.

Right on!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

It worked for Michelangelo ...

Two and a half recent events have me thinking about my career as a writer and the writing industry in general. This is not completely new territory for me, if you check my archives you'll find one or two previous forays, but I've been wandering a bit farther afield of late.

The first full event was a long and at times impassioned series of conversations with a person I respect who strongly supports internet underground organizations like Wikileaks and Anonymous. (Being of my generation, he lacks the cyber savvy or networking feng shui to be part of either; it was an essentially intellectual debate.) Our differences were not so much political as they were philosophical: what is information and who has the right to control it. His view – which is widespread across the internet and gaining traction in more spheres than I'd like to think – is that any datum is essentially a found object. Information has no owner and should be universally available without cost. At the crux is what form that information takes.

There was an earthquake in Japan. That's a fact that should not cost you anything to know. But what about an analysis of the effects of that earthquake on a major Japanese nuclear facility and the potential for radioactive repercussions? Or a series of articles describing the selfless acts and heroic rescues as ordinary folks united to save each other in the face the natural disaster, complete with extensive interviews of the people involved? Or – looking a few months and years into the future – a novel or movie about one family's survival? Or a whodunit in which a murderer uses the opportunity of the tsunami to cover her crime? Or a science fiction story about a giant fire-breathing lizard spawned from the ocean by the uncontrolled radiation terrorizing Tokyo? (Wait, I think that last one's been done.) In the mind of my friend: free, free, free, free, and free.

Not surprisingly, he's among the millions who applaud efforts to have all books – even currently copyrighted books – transcribed to the internet so everyone can have free access. Printed material should no longer be available only to those with the excess income to invest in paper products that are going to end up in a landfill anyway. He, like many people, is convinced 90% of a book's cover price is corporate profit. (He cited remainders tables as proof publishers can make money selling books for $1 each.)

He did concede that in the examples from Japan above the reporter who may have risked her life to interview the survivors and – to a lesser extent – the writer who converted the raw data presented by scientists and engineers into prose the general public could understand had performed services for which they should be paid. He was less sure about the fiction writing (like most nonwriters, he perceives the process of creating fiction to be a combination of lucid dreaming and automatic writing requiring little actual effort). When I pointed out I write fiction, he responded: "Yeah, but you have a job." In his mind the latter covered any expenses of the former.

The second full event was getting word that a story I'd sold would be printed. This was a write-for-hire project; a 10k magical mystery tale for an anthology of short fiction linked to a role-playing game. I wrote the story three years ago and been paid for it over two years ago, but due to legal and fiscal issues involving the game and its developers, the anthology had been scrapped. That the project had been resurrected, and that the story might actually see print in time for the con season this summer, came as a surprise.

The half event was a brainstorm (more like a brain partly cloudy) I had watching a Bud Lite commercial that spoofed product placement. I noticed the ad ends with a graphic that said "Enjoy responsibly." US law requires ads for alcoholic beverages to promote moderation, and the industry buzzword for "don't get stupid when you're drunk" is "responsibly." Every commercial ends with some variation of "please drink responsibly" whether as part of the voiceover or in text large enough to read. I proposed to my son that we start a microbrewery named "Responsibly." That way every other beer and spirits producer advertising in the USofA would end their commercials by advising people to drink our product. (He's out eagerly seeking investors even as I type. I'll feign surprised disappointment when he discovers you can't trademark a word in common usage.)

So what does this have to do with my career and – of more interest to most of you – writing in general? I am coming to suspect that my decision to step away from media tie-in writing for hire and go all original may be contrary to both my best interests as a writer and market trends in general.

Last year Scott Adams wrote a column envisioning a future in which writers published their stories on the web free of charge, but with a PayPal button so readers who liked their work could make donations. Income would be dependent on popularity and quality (as well as self-promotion skills) would determined who survived or failed as a writer. There's a lot wrong with that model. More plausible to me is the idea that when the all-writing-must-be-free philosophy matures from radical movement to accepted cornerstone of our culture (Remember when drinking trendy bottles of water was an affectation of the rich and fatuous?), fiction writing will become almost exclusively write-for-hire. People will always want entertainment, ways to escape their lives or explore others. Though critics may bemoan trends and quasi-reality formats blur the boundaries of truth and encroach on fiction's domain, novels and short stories will never go away. However they will become free to the public as the purpose of publishing fiction changes.

From a business perspective one can expect tales that promote the mystique of upscale products (a dashing romantic lead, captain of a racing yacht who's able to win the race and rescue the maiden thanks to the uncanny accuracy of his Tag Heuer) or more mundane attributes of everyday items (the hard-working single mom who loses custody of her daughter when wrongly accused of a crime is able to bring the wrongdoer to justice and regain her child through the clever, but safe, use of a variety of Johnson & Johnson products).

More insidious – and perhaps more likely – will be the political agendas. More subtle than Thomas Dixon and Ayn Rand, the new breed of political tie-in writers would present ideology covertly; as fundamental givens of a culture and guiding principles that allow the protagonists to overcome. Will this affect the quality of fiction? Probably not. Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Fahrenheit 451, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – there are hundreds of excellent works written to promote values and beliefs.

In centuries past artists of all stripes were supported not by sale of their works, but by patrons. Patrons who paid not for art, but for the way supporting the arts enhanced their reputations. I suspect that in the near future fiction writing will be circling back to its roots.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Breakthrough!

I finally figured out a story problem that’s been holding up progress on my WIP. So I’m feeling like these spring flowers I spotted breaking through the dirt on a frigid 25-degree morning.

Sooo, how about it y'all? Any writing breakthrough's lately?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Guest author Shelia M. Goss: The Flipside of Social Networking for Writers

Due to the Internet and the various forms of social media, readers have easier access to their favorite authors. This can be a good thing; however, beware of the flipside.

Blogging, Tweeting or being on Facebook can be a good way to express your thoughts on newsworthy items, let others know about your books, talk about controversial topics, etc. When you’re voicing your views online, everyone is not going to agree with your point of view. You might gain some readers using some of the social networks but you may also alienate a few people as well.

I’m not saying don’t say what you want to say, but beware that whatever you say on your own page or in the comment fields is subject to criticism. Should writers care about what they post online? How should authors respond to comments, especially those that are directed at them? I say use your best judgment. Some things can’t go left unsaid, while other comments need to be simply ignored.

Several of my favorite bloggers no longer blog on a regular basis because of fall out due to some of their blog posts. Some people took what they said on their blogs personally and there was a big “backlash” in the blogsphere from it. Personally, I feel they should have kept blogging, but professionally, I can see why they stopped.

Some folks find it hard to separate authors from their books so if they don’t like their online persona, they won’t purchase their books. It’s unfortunate but that’s just how it is. The online social networks can be another promotional tool but beware of the thin line. On the flip-side don’t let the thin line stop you from having your say—just beware that what mama said about “never say something you don’t want repeated” is not just true for your offline world, but it’s true for when you’re on any of the social networks too.

What’s your opinion about using online social media? Have you ever crossed the line and if so, what was the backlash? Do you ever use the anonymous key when posting? If so, why?

Straight-laced Savannah Blake’s world is turned upside down when she finds her dad, Major Blake, shot on his lawn. Before he dies, he gives her a few clues to the identity of his killer. His dying request is “Protect your sisters.” Montana and Asia are the only family Savannah has left, and she will fight to the end to save them. The pain of losing their father has Savannah obsessed with finding his killer.

Savannah suspects someone from “The Agency,” a secret government security operation where her father once worked, is behind his death. She enlists the help of Troy Bridges, the owner of a private security firm in Dallas. She doesn’t necessarily trust him, but Savannah needs Troy because of his inside knowledge of The Agency.

The chemistry between Savannah and Troy is electric, and only intensifies as the stakes get higher. They have no time to deal with their unresolved feelings, though, because the closer they get to the killer, the more dangerous things become.

Savannah’s Curse, Shelia Goss' eleventh book, will take you on a roller-coaster ride of suspense as Savannah channels her grief into an unrelenting search for her father’s murderer. It's available in stores or from any of the online outlets such as and Barnes and Noble.

Shelia M. Goss is the Dallas Morning News and Essence Magazine Best-Selling author of Savannah's Curse, Delilah, My Invisible Husband, Roses are Thorns, Paige’s Web, Double Platinum, His Invisible Wife, Hollywood Deception, and the teen series The Lip Gloss Chronicles. Delilah is her tenth novel and first Christian fiction novel. To learn more, visit her website:, or

Sunday, March 13, 2011


In broaching the subject of eBooks, no doubt, again, it merits continued debate as I continue to read various blogs and articles on eBooks versus print books, who's buying what, and what this all means for the future for writers and readers.

There doesn't seem to be a clear consensus one way or the other, but my own sense is that eBooks are the definite wave of the future while also making its presence felt right now.

Clearly print books are still in the driver's seat, so to speak, in terms of overall sales, keeping struggling bookstores afloat, and books on library shelves. From where I sit, there is no substitute for holding a real book in my hands and flipping from one page to the next, backtracking, or riffling through. I also love the atmosphere of a bookstore, be it an intimate independent bookshop or a chain bookseller, where my wife and I can hang out while wandering the aisles, sipping on a cappuccino and hoping to find that diamond in the rough that we must have.

However, I know people (particularly younger readers), who rely entirely on their Nooks and Kindles in reading for pleasure (and even schooling). It is pretty obvious to me that as a society, we are gravitating toward digital for movies, music, TV, and now reading. Amazon recently suggested their eBooks were outselling hardcover titles. Not too surprising here, considering the difference in price, even if most hardcover books are discounted these days, and ease in downloading and reading electronic books.

Twenty years from now, I predict that eBooks will be the primary means for reading fiction and nonfiction. Of course, for most of us writers whose livelihood is wrapped up in print sales, the coming years will be challenging, to say the least.
The best advice is to get with the program now and ease the burden later. One way I am doing this by trying to get my publishers to release out of print titles in eBook or allow me to do so. The results have been mixed thus far, but I will keep working on them.

I am also keeping an eye on the digital royalty rate for future print contracts, seeking to get as much as I can when books are released as eBooks.

Finally, I have begun putting out in eBook my out of print books for which I have the rights back, as well as original eBooks. The results have surprised and excited me. I am selling lots of copies of what has grown to be eight eBooks I control, thus far, giving me income on the side that comes in handy more often than not.

My original young adult coming of age eBook tale, HER TEEN DREAM, has been a hit sensation in Kindle and Nook; as has been my original medical mystery, MURDER IN MAUI, and eBook version of out of print legal thriller, STATE'S EVIDENCE.

I, for one, have truly embraced the digital revolution and intend to ride the wave wherever it takes me in the world of writing in print and eBook formats.

What are your thoughts on eBooks versus print books? Are your eBook versions of print books selling well?

Have you done any original eBooks in Kindle, Nook, Google eBooks, Smashwords, etc.?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

International Women's Day!

International Women's Day is a global day on which we celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women. In some countries, mainly in Africa and Asia, the day is a holiday and it has the equivalent status of Mother's Day.

It is an important day here, a country where many women have second class status. It is not as obvious as other countries where women are told what to wear, where to go and how to act. However, women still suffer a number of indignities at the whims and fancies of men, including being banished from their villages and branded as witches, mistreated when they are widowed, and scorned if they contract HIV from their errant husbands.

This morning, my daughter insisted that I should write my blog about her. "I inspire you to write," she reminded me, "AND I have the writing spirit." She then described three stories that she has in her head to write down. "But I am still going to be a vet," she added quickly.

I am so happy that my daughter has the freedom to make these choices, freedom earned on the backs of women who have fought since the 1900s to gain the right to be.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Vampires and Sex

The first vampires I ever met stalked Salem’s Lot. Man, they were cool. Deadly, too, but with a disturbingly seductive and rotted beauty. The next vampire novel that I recall with fondness was Robert McCammon’s They Thirst, about some of the nastiest bloodsuckers you’d ever want to meet razing Los Angeles in search of gore. Only later did I venture back to the originators, first to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, then to the even earlier Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu.

In those days I preferred the villainous aspects of the vampire. I recognized the erotic attraction that characters like Carmilla and Dracula had for some readers, but I was far more interested in the horror than the seduction. By the mid-1980s, though, when I began to write seriously myself, a change had swept over vampire literature, initiated, perhaps, by Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire. Vamps were still dangerous, but the focus fell increasingly on their seductive and romantic qualities. The age of the antihero vampire was “dawning.”

Anthology series and magazines like Prisoners of the Night, Dead of Night, and The Vampire’s Crypt were pioneers in unleashing this new kind of vampire on the world. These were some of the magazines publishing dark fantasy and horror at the time I became interested in writing in those genres, and by then I was ready to embrace the rising trend. I began to enjoy writing about vampires who were not so much evil as they were “conflicted.” My vampires did bad things; they killed and fed. But they often struggled with the “thirst,” and with their own lost—or not quite lost—humanity.

Recently, a collection of my vampire stories was published, called Midnight in Rosary. There’s a werewolf tale or two in the collection. There’s a ghost. But mostly it’s vampires of various kinds and stripes. I was surprised when I was putting it together that I’d written so many stories about vampires in which they weren’t total villains. There are some nasty ones in there, but most of them have a lot more complexity to their characters, and I found I appreciated that.

I was also surprised that there was so much sex in the stories. Most of what I’ve written in my life would fall under the “adventure” heading, and quite often there is no sex at all, or it’s mostly implied. The stories in Midnight in Rosary are different. The sexual descriptions range from the romantic to the graphic, although I doubt anyone who has read a Laurell K. Hamilton book would be shocked. But there’s quite a lot of sex and it is generally integral in some way to the plot. I have to think that it is the vampire thing that led to this. Eroticism existed as part of the vampire equation from it’s beginnings in Carmilla and Dracula, but it has certainly become far more pronounced over the last 30 years. In the modern day it seems almost impossible to write about vampires without some kind of sexual element.

Vampires can be many things to many people, and that has gone far toward making them the most enduring “monster” in all of literature. It’s a major reason why I’ve visited and revisited them so many times in my work.

So, what do you think of vampires? Is there room for really nasty, non-sexual vamps in today's world? Would anyone read such a book?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When is adultery romance

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a divorced mother. On discovering I was a romance novelist, she proceeded to provide me unsolicited ideas for my next novel. One of her ideas involved a military wife who falls in love with a man on base while her husband was involved in covert ops somewhere overseas.

I shook my head and said, “If I do that, I’ll have to make her husband pretty despicable and probably abusive. Readers don’t think of adultery as romance.”

As I pondered the scenario, the writer in me wondered, “When is adultery romance?”

Romance novels have clear guidelines. The leading character (especially the woman) should not be involved in a relationship at the time the romance begins. Beyond the guidelines, I have my own religious views, which do not condone adultery in any form or fashion. But as an artist, my mind was already thinking of scenarios that would work.

One scenario that would justify the new relationship is an abusive controlling philandering spouse. But what if that spouse was actually a nice person?

A few years back I was at a party when a friend of mine told the story of her friend, Jane, who called her in the middle of the night. Jane was driving aimlessly frustrated with no clear plan except that she was leaving her live-in boyfriend. Everybody in the group gasped. The consensus: he was such a nice man. He cooked, he cleaned, he took care of the bills and he was committed. But according to my friend, that was the problem. He took care of everything but he was a dud. Jane was emotionally frustrated and bored to insanity because her boyfriend offered no excitement or romance. He just took care of business.

I of course didn’t know the man and was only slightly acquainted with Jane. A few parties later I met Jane and I understood why she was dissatisfied. She wanted the kind of romance I write about in the novels, where the man wines and dines her and offers emotional excitement. She wanted someone who made her heart throb and her palms sweaty every time he came near. I could imagine in a situation like that, Jane would be vulnerable enough to leave her boyfriend (or have a steamy affair) for someone more exciting who can meet her emotional needs. Could we make that adulterous affair into a romance story that readers would enjoy and even root for?
Needless to say, Jane did return to her boyfriend, trading the excitement of the novels for the everyday mundane of a steady, comfortable, secure relationship. I have no doubt she had a laundry list of changes she would like to implement. But my question still stands: could we really make adultery so romantic that readers are rooting for the adulterous relationship, even though the spouse is a nice, committed person?

What do you think? What scenarios would work ?

Monday, March 7, 2011

What's in a Name?

Last week I discovered the power of a mere name to energize, galvanize, motivate and eradicate the heebie jeebies.

I've been stuck in a rut with novel #2. The publishers of #1 had first option on it; we sent it along to them and the option deadline came... and went. Our polite enquiries went unanswered: the house was running flat out trying to save its own life and I suppose minor matters like option deadlines didn't even register on their redlining priority meter. Finally, my agent withdrew the book from them. I proceeded to make one (admittedly half-hearted) submission to an e-first publisher who politely declined.

This was the point where I was supposed to gird the loins and get back in the fight, send the book out to the markets and keep sending until someone either bought it or I ran out of places to submit. What actually happened was that I lost the motivation, the energy, the incredible faith that writers must have to keep working and submitting despite all the negative realities of the business. I was no longer a bright-eyed initiate; instead of getting back on the horse I spent a hell of a lot of time wondering whether the ride was even worth it.

I tried to get going. I really did. But every time I opened the file and saw the title, it looked at me with sadness and reproach; I felt the weight of all the negatives descend on my shoulders.

Half the time I don't know what the heck my subconscious is playing at, but I'm learning to trust it even at its wackiest. Last week it began bugging me when the novel was the furthest thing from my mind. Change the title, it kept whispering in my ear, from inside my head at that. Change the title! How about this one for starters? And the new title came to me, bright and new and enticing, unblemished by any history or heaviness.

I had the flu and was not in the most receptive mood. But it kept insisting so I went in there, opened up the files, changed the title. And something weird happened. While going through the process of changing the title, the old excitement - about the story, about the process - came back, just a flash at first. Then it grew. And grew. Changing the title, it seems, tricked my mind in such a way that the heaviness and negative associations from the past year that the old title would call forth were nowhere in evidence when I looked at the new title. The upshot? I'm back in the game - wary, not trusting it much, but back at work.

So, what's in a name? Only a deep connection between what we label an object and the experiences we associate with said object. Want to change those associations? Go ahead. Change that name.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Paprika Chicken

I've been sick for the last week with a severe cold or mild flu -- either way I've been coughing up thick viscous things my friends no longer wish described to them and living with a head that feels as full as the A train at rush hour, and just about as civil. I ventured into the city yesterday to make up a computer class I missed, starting to feel better, and today I felt like I was past the worst for the first time.

I’ve been living on Whole Foods soups and homemade soup or stews I froze in individual servings months ago. When I was out yesterday I stocked up on a few things and bought some chicken breasts for when I started getting back my appetite for more solid food. Today I decided to go for it. I crushed a bunch of garlic cloves, threw them into a pot with baby carrots and sliced shallots, with the intent of pouring in a cup of red wine before I tossed it in the oven with the chicken. I cleaned the breasts and laid them on the veggie bed, and looked for some seasonings as I salted and peppered them. I have a jar of smoked paprika I bought at a friend’s suggestion that comes off the shelf from time to time to jolly up a meal, so I pulled it down.

The only reason I don’t use it more often is that the jar has a cork, not a shake lid, so I can’t sprinkle things with it. I don’t have a small strainer, but still fuzzy headed, I devised a plan with a fork and the big strainer I use to drain pasta that ended with the lightly oiled chicken completely covered in paprika. I decided to just roll with it, add a couple cups of red wine and put the pot in the oven to brown the chicken before I covered it and let it slow roast.

Looking down at the chicken my first memory had been of a dish my mother used to make that she called Paprika Chicken. It was only chicken breasts sprinkled with paprika and broiled crisp. I loved the crunchy skin, tinted dark red and brown by the flame and seasoning, remember it as one of many “special” meals my mom made for us. She also made Egg Foo Yung, bamboo shoots mixed with egg and spices and fried into pancake-sized discs drenched in sweet brown sauce; Tuna Casserole, creamy canned tuna, with crunchy crumb topping; Turkey ala King, chunks of white breast meat simmered in cream of mushroom soup from whatever cans hadn't been used in the tuna. My mom knew how to work a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup.

I can’t remember them all, but they flew through my head as I stared down at the paprika covered chicken. Looking back, most of them were budget stretchers, ways to feed a family of six on a limited income, ways to make meat go farther and still nourish your children. The reason we never felt like we were "eating poor" was that my mom made something wonderful out of it, turned their introduction to the table into a treasured family treat!

I LOVED Egg Foo Yung night! I didn’t eat sprouts any other time, and couldn’t see them in any other dish -- it was the only reason we had Soy Sauce in the house, a meal with a combination of flavors I didn’t eat any other time. We didn’t live in New York with a Chinese Restaurant every two blocks. My mother’s table may have been the most exotic around in places like Biloxi, Missisippi, where we lived in Air Force housing and could do as we pleased.

It leaves me with ever more respect for my mother, and the slight of hand tricks she used to keep us in line and on the straight and narrow. No matter what our reality may have been in good or bad years, when she was married with a husband’s support, or single and sometimes only just surviving, she never let us feel anything less than proud, and I think it was the greatest gift she gave us.

Spilling paprika on chicken is a funny trigger to take me there, but that is how the writing mind works, freely associative, and in times like this when it takes me to a pleasant place I haven’t been to in decades, it’s a very nice thing to have in your head. It’s also nice to remember where these things come from as I recover enough to go back to work on the novel.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Yikes! Writer Bloopers

"What are you cooking?" she asks, looking into the pot he stirs.
"Pesto," he answers.

It's been years, if not decades, since I saw the movie in which that exchange occurred. I no longer remember the name of the movie or the stars or any of the plot, only the huge mistake the writers had made and the scorn I felt for them. It would have taken only a few minutes to look in a cookbook to find out how pesto is made—only seconds if the Web were already around—but they didn't bother.

I work hard not to make factual mistakes in my stories that will lead to readers ridiculing me and possibly never reading my work again. Even so, I had the humbling experience this week of almost sending out a short story with two mistakes in a single sentence in the first paragraph.

This story takes place on an Indonesian island in 1598. To describe the setting without an info dump, I have one of the lead characters, a Portuguese sailor, admiring a few features he can see from his ship. One of the features was a vast sprawl of flowers, and in my final round of polishing, I decided to add a smoking volcano.

I checked online to see whether any of the volcanoes were live; a smoking volcano would be silly if none were. Yikes! It hit me then for the first time that volcanoes erupt and I had not checked any on the island had erupted in or shortly before 1598. Luckily, none had. But an eruption could have changed the look of the island considerably and possibly forced a relocation of the story to a different part of the island or a different year.

Second yikes! To make the description of flowers more specific, I went Google-surfing to find out what colors the flowers the island is known for are. That was when I discovered that the "flowers" were in fact the many species of brightly colored corals that the Portuguese saw in the clear tropical water under their ships. I not only had to take out the reference to flowers in the lead paragraph, but also add a mention of sharp-edged corals in an underwater scene.

I thought of the pesto-cooking writers then and felt a little sympathy. If I had skipped researching these two important points, I wondered what else I hadn't researched enough. The story is on submission now; if it gets accepted, I may find out from alert readers.

What is the silliest mistake you've ever made in a story or book? Did you catch it before it got published? Did any readers write to you?

I'll be blogging again on March 21, the second day of Spring. May you make no factual mistakes in your writing between now and then!

—Shauna Roberts

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Renewing your first works.

For many years I wrote longhand. I favored top-bound pads with heavy backing so I could write anywhere. And I did write anywhere, any time I had a few extra minutes (or could make a few extra minutes). Every few days – sometimes every week or so – I'd devote a predawn morning to typing what I'd written on the family's desktop computer.

When I was able to afford my first second-hand laptop, I felt like I'd been liberated. No more deciphering my crabbed hybrid of cursive and print, trying to remember the letters I'd intended with a tangled blot of lines, no more mornings racing against a paling sky and the impending day job I could type my stories anywhere. And look like I was writing – not scribbling – while I did it. I soon reached the point where I could not write longhand. I could write myself reminders of bits of dialog, or sketch a flowchart of the plot, or maybe make lists of salient points and details I did not want to forget, but I could not write creatively without a keyboard under my fingers.

This was for the most part fine. It sped up the process, got me from idea to mailed manuscript faster, increased my productivity a dozen fold. It felt good to be productive.

But in recent months my life has been complex. And my day job – which was once about helping people in person – is now about filling out forms online and typing up treatment plans and progress notes and reports to Medicaid justifying requests for thirty more days of service. All I do is type. Sitting at the keyboard to write stopped feeling like a new adventure and began felling like a seamless continuation of the day job. Writing became more work than it had been in a long time, and what I wrote I id not like.

So this past weekend I tried something new. I picked up a thick notebook and a sharpie pen and began writing whenever I found myself idle. I have written about the world around me, the lives of people I see and overhear. I have worked on a story, and have the bones of an essay on liturgical religions and faith. And I have found the tactile sense of the writing process – the grip of the pen, the feel of the pen point scratching its way across the paper – to be therapeutic. Even refreshing.

So once again I've been liberated in my writing. I've given up the tyranny of the keyboard for the freedom of the undemanding pad. I've come full circle – which would seem like the end if a single circle was what our lives are about. But each of us lives an ongoing a process, and what looks like an ending is simply the beginning of another revolution. We all of us will go through phases in our writing, and what we once did we will do again. The trick is to go with the changes, even if the they take you back to things you thought you'd left behind. Keep writing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I'm Writing...

...because sometimes there's nothing to do but write.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Author/Reviewer Relationship

At one time book reviews could only be found in newspapers and a few magazines, but the Internet has provided a platform for avid readers to share their opinions on books with the world. Online reviews have become key promotional tools for authors, but, unfortunately, some writers have heaped much embarrassment on their heads by lashing out after unfavorable reviews.

I cringe every time I read a story about “Authors Acting Badly.” Don’t get me wrong, I understand their pain. Reading harsh words about your work is not easy, but it comes with the territory. Making it in this business requires a layer of really thick skin.

Some authors refrain from responding to reviews all together, but personally, I don’t see the harm. If my book is reviewed on a blog that allows for comments, I usually drop in and thank the reviewer for taking the time out to read and review my book. Yes, even if the review is a bit unflattering. The Author/Reviewer relationship doesn’t have to be contentious; it just has to be civil.

What are your thoughts? Should authors just ignore reviews, or do you think it’s okay for a writer to engage in discussions about their books?