Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hey again, folks!

It's so nice to be back blogging with the pens!

For those of you who don't know me, I write the Jane True series for Orbit Books. It's urban fantasy and it's super fun.

Writing the books has also changed my life. I wrote Tempest Rising sort of out of the blue after I finished my PhD. I hadn't planned on becoming a popular fiction writer (I was a literary critic, who studied modernism and post modernism) and I'd even gotten my first job as a full time professor teaching modernism.

That first job was at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, and I loved it. I loved teaching my field, Shreveport turned out to be super fun, and I eventually made a really good home here. Unfortunately, I was also writing these books that were getting published, and yet they didn't count as publications toward my getting promotions at work. So when a job came up teaching in an MFA for popular fiction, I eventually realized I had to jump on it. Luckily, I got that job, and it definitely suits my new life as a writer/professor better.

But it was also in Pennsylvania, way far away from Louisiana and the life I'd made here.

So writing the books really has changed my life, in pretty substantive ways. Becoming a writer changed my goals, my job, where I live. But it's also allowed me so much more freedom and opportunity. Which is why I'm delighted to find myself back in Shreveport as a writer, invited to give a talk to LSUS's honor's program.

For that's been the best thing about writing. I'm blogging with Pens Fatales because I was lucky enough to meet three of the Pens, initially, at a convention. I met most everybody else later, when I would visit my initial Pens Friends in the Bay area. Writing has created for me so many opportunities for friendship, for travel, and for adventure. Who knew I'd love Kansas City so much? Who knew I'd have friends all over the country after five years? When I was stuck in Houston yesterday for a bit, and it looked like there was a chance my flight would be canceled, it was no big whoop--I've got good friends in Houston these days, after all.

So it's great to be back in Shreveport, where my career as a writer really began. It feels like coming full circle and it's a reminder to me that things don't have to end. They do have to change, but they don't have to end.

If you're in the Shreveport area and would like to come see me, here's a link to the public signing. There'll be punch!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Killing the Punisher

Does writing ever feel like this?
Does writing ever not feel like this?

My current theory, based on working with two completely different types of writers, is that the pursuit of perfection is the enemy of flow, that state from which our best, most creative writing comes.

What? My inner critic recoils at the thought. She is sure that if I don't flog myself with effort, check my own hubris every minute, I shall become a cliche-flinging hack not worthy of the paper we are no longer printed on. You can ignore me for parts of each first draft, but that's it, sister, or you're going straight to the dung-heap of history!

To take control back from my punishing, angry, fault-finding inner editor for just a minute. I am sure that she is wrong. The pursuit of perfection can be the source of problems just as much as it may be the thing that polishes my manuscript like Branson's silverware in Downton Abbey.

Follow me for a minute, and see if you agree.

I work at a fast-paced cloud computing company. We have a wide range of customers, from guys in the field who don't want to spend one second longer on the computer than they have to, to CIOs who do feats of astonishing magic with reports. Our team of talented writers work every day to make life better for our customers. For every new hire, I give a talk on how we attain quality in our technical documentation.

This lecture starts with a brief visit to physics and medicine, where the best minds of those pursuits noticed that: 1. Mistakes are inevitable and 2. It's usually a process, not a person, at fault.

Physicists and doctors can't prevent all mistakes. With all that money, all those machines that go "boop," and all those particle parsers, they acknowledge that they can never be free of error.

Whoa. My inner editor is a little nervous. You see, she has had me frightened of exposing mistakes to the public for a mighty long time. She asks, chin trembling, if we are doomed to make mistakes, should we just give up trying to avoid them?

Well, no. In my quality training, I suggest that instead of focusing all our efforts in trying not to make mistakes, we put some systematic energy into catching them before we publish. Stick with me, as this isn't just a semantic game.

If I know I will make mistakes, then my inner editor's job is no longer to prevent them, and in process cripple my voice or willingness to experiment. Her job becomes to notice the pattern in my mistakes, and develop a system for scrubbing them out before publication.

Self-monitoring, instead of self-excoriation, is a much more pleasant experience. 

What's it look like in practice? Lists, usually, both for technical writers and fiction writers, and many reading passes through my own content. Trust me, the seventh time through my own prose, a certain objectivity settles in. 

My lists, which I don't look at until the very end of the writing process, include:

  • Search for "ly" and evaluate every adverb.
  • Search for my crutch words and softeners: very, a lot, slightly, began to, and many others.
  • Make a chart of every chapter. Where is the protagonist at in the beginning and the end? Did she change emotional temperature? Did the story move forward? Was character revealed and challenged? (This is what my outline did before I wrote a word, but you know how what you plan to write and what you end up writing can diverge!).
  • Search on "eye" and "hair" for color, texture continuity.
  • Search for and replace cliches (unless it's dialog, used on purpose).
  • Search for and test metaphors and similes (sometimes I get into a "like a hot potato" rut).
  • Read and note every plot thread--address the threads that were dropped
  • Check the time between violent acts--are characters recovering realistically?

You simply can't do this and write original, strong-voiced material at the same time. Trying to do so leaves me feeling like the Munch painting. Knowing, trusting myself to do this cleanup at the end, after the important things have been created, lifts an incredible burden off my shoulders. I hope it does the same for anyone else who has been struggling to let their writing into the public sphere. Because right now we need those diverse voices, every single one of them!

I've noticed that, statistically speaking, women are far more likely to be of the excoriating variety, and men more likely to think everything they do rocks. (I have plenty of friends and acquaintances, men who excoriate and women who ride self-confidence like a Mavericks curl, just noting the statistical trend). Sheryl Sandburg and a host of psych studies have found the same thing. It makes me wonder if this sad state of affairs contributes to, say, how seldom women are reviewed in the New York Times review of books or nominated for screenwriting Oscars. Sure, there are many other factors at play. But is it possible that we have to let go of the scourge of perfectionism? Somehow we have to grow the confidence to know that making a mistake isn't a problem, unless we don't learn how to correct it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Trying Out Life as a Full-Time Writer

by Gigi Pandian

I've had a pretty amazing year. Right at the top of the list: there's no evidence of cancer in my body. Second on the list: I signed two three-book deals. Exactly what I wished for. Only...

Should I have been careful what I wished for?

When I was going through cancer treatments in 2011 and 2012, I very much embraced the "seize the day" mantra, throwing myself into writing and publishing while savoring the small things in life. But once life got back to normal, it was easy to let minor annoyances get in the way. I even found myself anxious about the amount of writing I'd agreed to take on by certain deadlines. Two of the six books I sold were complete, two more in draft form, and two completely unwritten.

Where's the fun in being stressed out about writing? The whole point of wanting to have a writing career is that it's something I love to do. So I took a step back and looked at my life. With the funky schedule of my graphic designer day job, I get several hours of writing done three mornings a week: two weekday mornings plus Sunday mornings -- and yes, it was a big sacrifice to give up leisurely Sunday mornings with the New York Times! Making tough choices like that is a given, if you're serious about fitting writing into your life. So even though I sometimes grumble when the alarm goes off on Sunday morning, I don't really mind. However, what I did mind was that with my new book deadlines I was starting to feel rushed.

There's a big difference between writing a competent book that has a decent plot, decent characters, and decent writing, and writing a truly engaging book that's exciting for the author to write and for the reader to devour. We all strive for the latter. Without sufficient time, I felt like I might only succeed at the former. I love each of these books, so I didn't wish I could back out of writing any of them. I wanted to find a way to fit them into my life.

If you read the title of this blog post, you already know where this is heading. I've decided to take a three-month sabbatical from my day job. For 100 days, I'm going to be a full-time writer!

My sabbatical begins this coming Saturday and I don't go back to work until February. During my time as a full-time writer, I'm going to finish writing/revising one novel and write a draft of another.

This is a grand experiment for me. I'm not someone who fantasizes about being a full-time writer. I'm definitely lucky that I love my day job. But more than that, I love how it gives me structure. If I know I have to be at work at 12:30, damn straight I'm getting up and getting my writing done with no excuses. I'm hoping three months is a long enough time for me to do everything I want to do, but a short enough time that it provides that same procrastination-killing fire under me that I'm used to. Wish me luck!

p.s. I'll be doing NaNoWriMo to kick off my writing this November. Anyone else?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Liberation from Shame

Rebecca Lyndon is a special friend to the PensFatales. She wrote an amazing piece on this interesting week in publishing, and I begged her to let me post it here. (On a personal note, I love her work, and I think it's seriously awesomely hot.) Please welcome her. - Rachael

It’s been an interesting week. Last Saturday, an email from Amazon popped up in my inbox, telling me that they were taking down one of my books for violating their content guidelines.

This book, a collection of erotic stories told from the point of view of a young woman who has decided to break away from her family’s history rushing into bad relationships by exploring her sexual fantasies before she settles down, is probably the most vanilla of my books. That’s not to say it isn’t hot. It is. At least, I like to think it is, but the floggers and the whips are kept to a minimum.

At first, I laughed at the takedown notice. Humor is my primary defense. I wrote some emails to a few close friends and joked about how I was able to violate content guidelines that were ridiculously vague.

“What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.”

Well, no. I guess it’s not what I would expect.

But after a little while, my humor began to fade, and something else took its place. It started out as a vague dissatisfaction that took root in my belly and slowly grew outward. After a few days, I realized that I was well and truly pissed, and that I had every right to be.

This book was special to me. It was a departure from my usual stuff. I’m an erotic romance writer, you see. Kinky stuff. People discovering their love of BDSM as they fall in love with each other. The book that Amazon took down was my first foray into pure erotica. Sex for the pure joy of it without the promise of a happily ever after.

Writing it was liberating. For just a little while, to break from the conventions of my chosen genre, to not have to worry about deep internal conflicts, or who was saving who, to focus on the needs, desires and sensations of one character--it was fun. Really fun.

Writing from Amber’s point of view taught me important lessons about writing all characters. When you write romance it’s easy to think of your heroine and hero as one unit, always moving together throughout the story, and not as complex separate beings who have no idea that their happily ever after endings are assured. Desires, not just sexual ones,--though I think those pack an emotional punch that is both powerful and universally relatable--and how we act on them are the ultimate show of character.

But it’s what I learned after Amazon took the story down that has left the most lasting impact.

I never received, nor have I seen any statement from Amazon that explains why they went on a banning spree, but it isn’t hard to come up with a solid guess. With the shocking news breaking last week that erotica exists and that different people have different kinks, the actual disturbing fact surfaced that erotica was coming up in searches for children’s books.

Let me be clear that I don’t think this is acceptable. Not even a little bit. But let me be equally clear that I believe to my core that the onus is on retailers to restrict access to adult material and not on the artist to restrict content.

So why don’t booksellers just refuse to sell all erotica, and skip the controversy altogether? They can. It’s their right. Just like it’s mine to write whatever I like, at least here in America. Check your local listings in other countries.

But here’s the thing. If that’s your gut reaction, and you’re in the business of selling books, then allow me to humbly suggest that you look into another profession. Because historically, being in the book business is subversive as shit. It’s for the tough and courageous. Those willing to stand up to the book burners, not jump on their bandwagon first chance they get. Those who refuse to be shamed into submission.

Which is another important thing I learned this week. I am not ashamed to say that I am a fan of erotica, no matter how many times I read that I should be. I am not ashamed that I read it, and I’m sure as hell not ashamed that I write it.

Why? Because, deep down, I believe that erotica is the liberation from shame. It’s pointing a spot light straight on those dark desires that the rest of the world says you must keep hidden. It allows you to realize that those terrible fancies that occasionally play at the back of your mind don’t make you a monster. Other people have them too. Regular people. People who have families, and houses and pay their taxes. They’ve all got a kink of their very own.

And that’s why I think people go after erotica. It’s not about the sex. It’s a fear of a group of people who reject the notion that shame, not innate human decency, is the glue that holds society together.

I understand this fear. I believed it for a long time. Maybe that’s why I have no animosity for those who still do. Fear of your own insides is a terrible thing.

But I did say that this has been an interesting week, not a bad one. In the end, cooler heads prevailed. A couple of days ago, I received an email from Amazon saying that upon further review my book did not violate their content guidelines, and I could republish it.

I can only hope that everyone else who was affected by the mass takedown received the same email. Because if not, then that would be the real shame.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Let go. Embrace. Write!

by Juliet Blackwell

Recently I’ve had several people ask me what they should read in order to learn to write. 

I’m going to say something close to blasphemy. 

The truth is, I don’t believe in reading books about writing.  Reading is not writing.   

Writing is writing.  In fact, most successful authors I know “learned” to write by writing their first book, or their first several tomes. 

So if you want to write, then write.  How?  Learn to let go, and embrace.

Let go of the results of that first book.  Just finish it: prove to yourself that you can write 80k words of narrative.  It doesn’t have to be poetry; it just has to be DONE.

Let go of “worthy”: no writing out there is “worthy” in everyone’s estimation, and yet it’s all worthy.  Let go of the concept --it's not useful.

Embrace the “vomit draft”:  I hate the graphic nature of that term, but it’s the only word that truly encapsulates the feel of that first, fast draft.  Some people call it the sh*t draft, but to me it’s more like pulling things up, painfully, and spewing them out on the page.  Again, I apologize for the imagery, but the process of writing –like most art-- isn’t pretty. Embrace the messiness, let go of the worthy, and get it on the page! 

Embrace dogged determination: just DO it (insert Nike swish here).  If it’s twenty minutes a day, make those minutes count.  If you’ve got all day, go for it. Don’t think about it, just do it.

Let go/ignore frenemies.  Stick your fingers in your ears and hum.  Practice the friendly, “No, sorry, I have to write.” (this gets easier with practice!) Before you’re officially published it’s hard to convince people (and yourself) that you’re actually doing something important, so be clear on this for yourself before sharing with others:  This is my work.  It is worthy. No one else can tell my story.

Let go the monkey mind.  The monkey mind jumps all over the place.  Force yourself to enter your own story and ignore the laundry, the phone, the internet, the sunny day outside your window.  Want to write?  You have to give up something.  Maybe many somethings. It’s a sacrifice.  But as those of us who write know, it’s well worth it.

Try NaNoWriMo – 2k words (8-10 pages) a day is nothing for a lot of us working authors, but if you’ve never written a book it can feel daunting (as it can if you have, for example, a full time job and children and a spouse and and and…)  NaNoWriMo can help you get past that hump: you have to write, whether it’s good or not, whether it’s worthy or not.  (At 2k a day, you have a 60k rough draft in one month.  That leaves you 11 months to tinker on it, correct plot problems, craft language, reach for the magic…and then you’ve written a clean, lovely manuscript in one year!)

Embrace other creative people:  Throw yourself into the creative world.  Find a writing group such as Sisters in Crime, or Romance Writers of America, or NaNoWriMo, or a local group.  Find a fellow author who will sit with you in a café and write for hours while ignoring the crowd, and each other. 

Embrace yourself as an artist: an artist doesn’t do what other people do.  Perhaps that means you have no idea who won American Idol, or the World Series, or the Oscars.  Perhaps that means you had to skip the beach trip or that last delicious hour of sleep.  Perhaps it means you don’t shower for days and you live with the voices in your head…it’s all good, you’re a quirky *artist*!!!

And finally…if any of the above is helpful, embrace it…if it doesn’t apply to you, let it go.  We all have different ways of getting our stories written, so feel free to call bullsh*t on me!

(This has nothing to do with anything...but check out my great house at California Home Design. Happy Halloween!!!)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Irene Adler

I’ve stopped watching Elementary. It’s not because I don’t like the show. I do. I enjoyed almost everything about it. I loved Jonny Lee Miller’s very human take on Sherlock. I liked how they focused on how he was driven by his addictive tendencies. I liked how they made Watson a smart and worthy character and not just some clueless barnacle clinging to Sherlock’s side. I even liked most of the mysteries.

But I’m not watching Elementary this season, and it’s because of what they did to Irene Adler.

When I was young, my mother used to read me Sherlock Holmes when I got sick. I would climb into her bed and drink apple juice and hear stories about missing blue carbuncles and shady-sounding Red Headed Leagues.

I liked Sherlock. Who wouldn’t? He was the hero. He was exciting and brilliant. He solved mysteries no one else could.

But the character I really fell in love with was Irene Adler.

Irene is only in one story, A Scandal in Bohemia, but she stayed with me, and seeing how she’s showed up in just about every modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes that I can think of, I’m guessing that she stuck with a lot of people. It’s not hard to guess why. Irene was the only one who ever really bested Sherlock.

That’s right the only person smarter than Sherlock Holmes was a woman.

Okay, I hear some of you out there saying that technically Mycroft was smarter, but that’s just comparing stat to stat. An intellectual exercise. Irene beat him in a fair fight down on the field. That makes her the winner as far as I’m concerned.

Irene Adler wasn’t just any woman; she was an awesome woman. She was an opera singer, an adventuress, and a lover to a king, but most of all she was a woman who lived life on her own terms. And those terms included being left the hell alone by a harassing monarch and marrying the man she fell in love with, despite having a life of her own before she met him. Crazy, I know.

Yeah, I love me some Irene Adler. And I get real pissed off when people do her wrong. Which is exactly what Elementary did--big time.

They took this smart, independent character and turned her into a criminal mastermind, one who was responsible for dozens of deaths. She uses her body as a weapon to get what she wants out of Sherlock. She’s evil. But the end, she’s done in by her overly sentimental heart.

Now, to be fair, Elementary isn’t the only one that’s done this to Irene. Those Robert Downey Jr. movies made her into a thief, and that show, Sherlock, made her into an evil dominatrix who only uses her sexuality to gather information for blackmail and helping terrorists.

And they all pissed me off. For a couple of reasons.

Let’s start with the idea that a female character’s only weapon against a male is sexual. The “real” Irene was never attracted to Sherlock. The only man she had feelings for was her fiancé. That’s why he was her fiancé.

She didn’t need to dazzle poor Sherlock with her lady parts to beat him. She had her brains. She saw past his disguise and made one of her own. A more effective one, and she fooled him good. And she didn’t do it for nefarious reasons. She did it to protect herself and the one she loved. She wasn’t some female version of a melodrama villain, flashing her tits instead of twirling a mustache.

Which brings me my next gripe. Is the idea of an intelligent, sexually experienced female character really so frightening that the only role she can play is a villain?

Really? Because please remember that A Scandal in Bohemia was published over 120 years ago, and at the end of the story Sherlock describes Irene as being on higher level than the king. That’s right, a story written in the Victorian era is more progressive than the stuff you can find on tv today. Think about that for a while.

But let be clear about something. These paper thin, stereotypical versions of Irene aren’t just infuriating; they are insulting. They are representative of a lack of imagination and depth that goes into creating female characters in general. And that’s really why I won’t be watching Elementary this season.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Lisa's Writing Tips

So, the Pens are back (plus Mysti and Ruby!)...we're all really excited to be here. Seriously, excited.

To writers, talking about writing is almost as good as doing it. I'm a perpetual student. I have a fairly extensive library of books on writing. Writing novels, writing short stories, writing screenplays. Three act structures, Hero's journey, scene and sequel. How to make good writing great.

Books by famous authors about their career paths and how they did it and continue to keep doing it. Books on mythology, archetypes, symbolism. Books on editing once the draft is done. Books on style. Books on marketing.

There is always more to learn. Which is true of any profession or passion. There is always more to learn.

I thought for my posts perhaps each month I would highlight a particular book. Of course, I may change my mind which is definitely the point of this newer, less-structured format. This month's book was supposed to be a highlight of Self-Editing forFiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

It's an excellent book chock full of tips on how to make your writing cleaner and more concise, and how to avoid common mistakes. I refer back to the information frequently. But when I sat down to write this post, I kept getting distracted by what's been going on in my own writing life lately and decided to share my personal tips this month instead.

So what I want to talk about is actually getting your butt in the chair and writing. One of the hazards of being a writer is that talking about writing is almost as good as doing it. I know you've seen that line before, right at the beginning of this post. But it's true.

It's really easy to talk about writing, about learning the craft, about structure, about heroes, heroines, villains, about plot points, black moments, returning for the elixir. The list goes on and on....

But at the end of the day (week, month, year) what matters most is whether or not you sat down at your computer or with a notebook and pencil and actually put words on the page. Because that's what writers do. They write.

So here are my tips (in no particular order):

1. I keep a spreadsheet. A practice I learned from the absolutely amazing Suzanne Brockmann at a workshop years ago. She mentioned lawerly billable hours and keeping track of her time. I started doing the same. I keep a year long spreadsheet, and I put in all my work whether it is 20 pages of editing or 652 new words written or even research.

2. I also delete nothing (or almost nothing) from a work in progress until the draft is complete and I've gone through two or three revision passes. Then I take all the leftovers, which I move to the bottom of the manuscript, and dump them into a leftover file doc. I do delete a few words or notes here and there but if the edit is longer than four or five words, it goes at the bottom of the document.

3. If I am having trouble diving into a scene, I will do some of these: Write in 15 minute increments. Write the scene in first person. Switch the scene point of view. Write or Die (  online for free). Start a word war with a friend. (Adrienne Bell and I are getting to be pros at this. I lost September so I have to buy lunch this month :) )

So those are my words to get you started. I'll leave you with this:

Just write. That's what we do.


ps. Some Pens and friends have a holiday anthology coming October 20th! We are pretty excited about this collaboration. More later in the month....

Love on Main Street: A Snow Creek Christmas

Where love begins on Main Street and ends happily ever after....

Christmas, the most magical season, is almost upon the small mountain town of Snow Creek. For seven couples, holiday wishes mean more than just gifts or parties. Can Snow Creek pull off its annual holiday miracle of bringing love to town?