If Love was a Train, I’d write better.

This morning I remembered Michelle Shocked. I hadn’t thought about her in years, but I loved her first couple albums. Here’s a link to a live version of My Little Sister. Such a good song! Back in my cover band days, we used do Little Sister and If Love was a Train.

Good stuff!

I didn’t take many liberties with Michelle’s vocal style. Like, I pretty much copied her note-for-note. Well, maybe not every note but I stayed true to the way she interpreted the songs. Save that thought for later.

The thing that made me sad about remembering Michelle is that when I googled her name, I got her Wikipedia page, a couple hits about a supposed homophobic rant, followed by her apologies for said rant…or denials, or something. Then I went to youtube, and all I could find were really sketchy covers of some of her songs.

Dear god I hope my band sounded better than that.

Which got me thinking about writing. Okay, you’re right. Just about everything gets me thinking about writing, but still. The thought I’ve been chewing on this time has to do with what’s good and what’s not.

It seems to me that the difference between me and the authors that find a place in the broader cultural landscape is larger than the difference between Serena Williams and that seventeen year old kid she played on center court in Arthur Ashe Stadium last night.

Catherine McNally played well – she won the first set, which is not easy to do against Serena – but by the middle of the second set, they could have been playing in different universes.

Catherine is good. Serena is the best, possibly ever.

The thing that hangs me up is figuring out where I fit on the spectrum between “good” and “best”. Do I even reach “good”? I don’t know, and sometimes that uncertainty makes it hard to get any words on the page.

There’s this contradiction between “there’s so much crap out there” and “everyone’s voice is important”. Can both, “you’re a shitty cover band singer” and, “you are uniquely creative and no one else can tell your stories” be true?

And does it matter that my old band’s version of If Love was a Train doesn’t stray far at all from the original?

I don’t need to be Serena, but I’d like to see if I could play on the same court at least once.

I’ve been pondering whether it would be worth my while to get my MFA, maybe at one of the low-residency programs that focus on genre fiction. (I can’t stand to read much literary fiction, so don’t look for me on the lit fic bestseller list, like ever.) They programs I’ve looked at are expensive (!), and while I’m sure I’d learn, I’m not sure I’d learn more than I could teach myself by, you know, reading and writing.

Artists learn to paint by copying the masters. Singers learn to scat by mimicking Ella Fitzgerald. (And yes, I’ve had Mr. Paganini on constant rotation in my brain for the last couple weeks.) I’ve never sat down and said “I’ma write just like _______,” but I do take mental notes while I’m reading.

And I read a lot, hitting just about anything but horror and YA. (And Lit Fic, but we already covered that.) I read, and I write, and I try to push myself.

You may be wondering what brought on this little bout of naval gazing. See, I read an article about the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s the one that says when you first learn something, your confidence is low because you know you don’t know anything, but once you learn a little, your confidence goes up, higher than your relative skill would warrant.

Once you move toward expert, you know what you don’t know, and your confidence goes down.

Here’s me, down at the bottom of the well.

I won’t ever play as well as Serena, and I do still tend to sing a lot like Michelle Shocked, but I have too much writing to do to worry about how my work will eventually be judged. So, on that note…

…if you can’t sing it, you simply have to …. swing it!
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Building Characters, One Verb at a Time

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees…

Last October I heard Damon Suede speak at the Emerald City Writers Conference. He’s a terrific speaker who wraps a lifetime of knowledge and experience in an entertaining – like, LOL funny – presentation.

Damon could explain this a lot better than I will, but the basic premise to his master class was this: a reader gets to know a character by the character’s actions. Period. And those actions make it on the page in the form of verbs. So, rather than spend hours developing a detailed character biography, pick a handful of verbs and a few adjectives and make that the template your character grows from.

(If you’re curious, you can read about his approach in Verbalize: Bring stories to life and life to stories.)

And you know what? It works!

I recently wrote a holiday novella, the first piece I’d started from scratch since hearing Damon’s presentation. Over the years I’ve done my share of character biography worksheets – the more detailed, the better – but this time I came up with names, chose half a dozen verbs and the same number of adjectives, and wrote simple goal-motivation-conflict statements for each of the two main characters.

Here’s the beginning of my character worksheets for Bo and Jon, the heroes in my holiday novella:

Bo Barone – the crafty one: Adjectives & verbs: bright, shiny, quick, glittering, smiling, laughing, glowing, self-assured, patient, detail-oriented, crafting, inspiring, protecting, intimacy issues, performing, caring

Background: big family, Italian, local Seattle, Midnight Mass at St. James

Jon Cunningham – the artist: Adjectives and Verbs: dark, deep, methodical, dedicated, passionate, reserved, commanding, distancing, consider, create, observe, listen, measure, perform, practice, reflect, teach

Background: Seattle family, missed out on much of high school, studied at Juilliard, Dad had a stroke

Can’t you just picture them? Instead of pages of detail, I had a few lines, yet I felt it took me less time to get a handle on Bo & Jon than just about any of my other characters. I’ll admit things morphed a little during the writing process, particularly in terms of their goals/ motivations/ conflicts, but the characters’ essence, who they were, was pretty solid.

That essence was captured in the verbs and adjectives I chose for them.

Happy Hydrangeas!

Whenever I wasn’t quite sure how a character would respond or what they’d do next, I had my list of verbs and adjectives to guide me. Even though both my heroes changed over the course of the novella – because that’s what the plot is for – still, their core remained constant.

You’ll have a chance to see how well I did, because Dreamspinner offered me a contract for the novella, so A Holiday Homecoming will be released ~ 12/1/19. If you have the change to hear Damon speak, do it. You’ll learn a lot. And the next time you’re stuck with on a character, focus on their verbs and see if it helps.

Hybrid Tea Rose Tequila Sunrise. Cheers, mate!

Summer Reads: What’s on YOUR list?

We’re having Juneuary, that stretch of time between the end of May and the Fourth of July when the temperature sits in the 50s and 60s (that’s 10-15 degrees C) and it rains and everybody whines about how summer’s never coming. It’s a Seattle thing. We always act like rain in June is a huge surprise.

Every year.

At least I haven’t turned the heater back on. (Yet.)

To remind myself that it is summer – on the calendar, at least – I thought it would be fun to make a list of the books I’m most looking forward to reading once beach weather starts for real. Lately my kindle has been heavy with non-fiction – cool stuff, but not light and fluffy beach reading material.

For example, I’m in the middle of “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World” by Melinda Gates. She uses personal glimpses into the lives of women world-wide to illustrate the appalling way women are treated, and while I have no doubts about her commitment to her foundation’s causes, I wish she’d taken a more academic, less-Hallmark tone. She’s walking the walk when she really doesn’t have to, and I respect that. That said, when I finish, I’m definitely going to be ready for something lighter.

With that in mind, here’s a handful of books I can’t wait to dive into!

Caveate: I’ll have to start a couple of these in the next week or so – before Seattle’s summer meanders in – because the Seattle Public Library has a way of dumping *all* my hold requests on me at once.

Who needs to clean house? Not me…sigh…

First up is “The Affair of the Mysterious Letter” by Alexis Hall. It’s a Sherlock-adjacent fantasy novel, and I cannot wait! Here’s the blurb:

Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.

When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham is drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.

But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas’ stock-in-trade.

This book has had such amazing reviews! I’ve never read anything by Casey McQuiston before, but a number of my reading buddies have been singing the praises of “Red, White & Royal Blue”, and I can’t wait to dive in. Here’s the blurb:

What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales?

When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius―his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.

Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.

And finally, I’m dying to read Hither, Page by Cat Sebastian. It’s a cozy mystery set in post-war England and it has LIV’S CATNIP written all over it. Here’s the blurb:

A jaded spy and a shell shocked country doctor team up to solve a murder in postwar England.

James Sommers returned from the war with his nerves in tatters. All he wants is to retreat to the quiet village of his childhood and enjoy the boring, predictable life of a country doctor. The last thing in the world he needs is a handsome stranger who seems to be mixed up with the first violent death the village has seen in years. It certainly doesn’t help that this stranger is the first person James has wanted to touch since before the war.

The war may be over for the rest of the world, but Leo Page is still busy doing the dirty work for one of the more disreputable branches of the intelligence service. When his boss orders him to cover up a murder, Leo isn’t expecting to be sent to a sleepy village. After a week of helping old ladies wind balls of yarn and flirting with a handsome doctor, Leo is in danger of forgetting what he really is and why he’s there. He’s in danger of feeling things he has no business feeling. A person who burns his identity after every job can’t set down roots.

As he starts to untangle the mess of secrets and lies that lurk behind the lace curtains of even the most peaceful-seeming of villages, Leo realizes that the truths he’s about to uncover will affect his future and those of the man he’s growing to care about.

“A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics” by Olivia Waite is another book that’s had great buzz. It just came out this week, and I can’t wait to dive in! Here’s the blurb:

As Lucy Muchelney watches her ex-lover’s sham of a wedding, she wishes herself anywhere else. It isn’t until she finds a letter from the Countess of Moth, looking for someone to translate a groundbreaking French astronomy text, that she knows where to go. Showing up at the Countess’ London home, she hoped to find a challenge, not a woman who takes her breath away.

Catherine St Day looks forward to a quiet widowhood once her late husband’s scientific legacy is fulfilled. She expected to hand off the translation and wash her hands of the project—instead, she is intrigued by the young woman who turns up at her door, begging to be allowed to do the work, and she agrees to let Lucy stay. But as Catherine finds herself longing for Lucy, everything she believes about herself and her life is tested.

While Lucy spends her days interpreting the complicated French text, she spends her nights falling in love with the alluring Catherine. But sabotage and old wounds threaten to sever the threads that bind them. Can Lucy and Catherine find the strength to stay together or are they doomed to be star-crossed lovers?

So yeah, this is shorter than my usual to-read posts, and it also seems to be very white. Hmm…I need to make diversity more of a goal. Is that something you think about? What’s on your reading list for the summer? If you have any suggestions – diverse or otherwise (as long as it’s not some heavy non-fic tomb) I’d love to hear them.


GRRM and the Three Bears…

…or, the virtue of leaving clues that are visible to the average reader but not ham-handed, neon-bright arrows.

I’m going to start with a small qualifier: I have neither read A Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire & Ice, nor have I watched the HBO series. I am, however, a sentient human being with access to the internet, so I know the last episode – in which the Mother of Dragons went postal – created something of a stir. Or a shitstorm. Or therabouts.

I know this in part because Chuck Wendig made a tweet thread in which he argues that character should come before plot – accusing implying that GRRM &/or the series creators may have overlooked this small detail.

You can read his thread HERE, and you should. He knows his stuff. Also, he deconstructs the episode – and the series – HERE. (And if you’re really into it, fashion bloggers Tom & Lorenzo also have a detailed review you can find HERE.)

The big concern with the Game of Thrones episode seemed to be that Daenerys Targaryen behaved in a way that was inconsistent with her character. Maybe or maybe not – I did see at least one tweet prior to the episode suggesting that the Mother of Dragons might end up being the Big Bad, which tells me there must have been at least a couple hints along the way.

Hints that the vast majority of the television-watching public apparently didn’t notice.

Sunday night, while the rest of humanity was glued to HBO, I started a mystery by a new-to-me author. It was a pretty standard trope: Big City Woman is dragged back to her small-town home for Reasons, where she Learns Things, Figures Out Whodunnit, possibly Falls In Love, and then decides to Stay Forevermore.

Sadly, I bailed on it by about 30 pages in, because:

  • I didn’t connect with the main character. At all.
  • Which turned on my editing brain, so that every time her eyes wandered around the room, I lost a little more patience. (Her gaze wandered. Her eyes stayed in her head. Thanks.)
  • As a result of my lack of connection and super-editor, the clues to the character’s arc were glaringly obvious.

The main character was the only one in the family who had the time to take care of the problem in the Small Town, even though it meant leaving her job in the middle of a project and pissing off her boss. Because apparently a woman’s work is never too important to interrupt.

Whoops. That’s another blog post.

Anywhoodle, her stated goal was to return to her uber-exciting life in the Big City, but from just about the moment she arrived, she had Feelings. Right there in her internal dialogue, she noticed a strange connection to the place, one she could not understand. “Why do I feel this way?” she’d ask herself.

Why?

Because it says in the blurb that you’re going to have a change of heart, sweetie, and you’ll want to stick around.

*ahem*

Leaving aside the (potentially sexist) set-up, to me these “what an odd emotion” moments were clunky, too-obvious road signs to her character’s development. I think it would have worked better if she’d had a chance to earn that sense of connection rather than just stumbling into it like a slap-happy princess in some insta-love romance.

And honestly, maybe she did. I mean, I did quit at only 30 pages. But hey, I’m over 50 and there are too many books left for me to read to waste time getting annoyed.

Although the stories are very different, I think the essential problem is the same. Daenerys’s behavior took a wild left turn from her established character, and the mystery character’s “odd feelings” didn’t relate to anything intrinsic to her personality. In the one case, the clues were too subtle, and the other, too blatant.

Seems like we should be able to split the difference somehow.

I wish I could say I knew how to avoid either mama bear or papa bear details. I’m researching Victorian London with an eye to writing a mystery, so I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to leave baby-bear style clues – hints that give readers just enough to keep going, but don’t beat them over the head.

The best advice I can come up with is that character trumps plot, and to be ready for a shitty first draft and lots of editing. To that end, I’m brainstorming characters’ goals and motivations and secrets and wounds and all the good stuff that will (hopefully) help me construct a story that’s character driven, and not the other way around.

With a plot Chuck Wendig would love.

Wish me luck!

It’s time.

This time last year – April 5th, 2018 – I published a post that, among other things, reflected on the upheaval surrounding the RITA Award nominations.

You can find that post HERE.

The RITAs are the romance genre’s version of the Oscars. They’re sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and if you write romance, getting a RITA nomination is a Very Big Deal. When the awards were announced last year, there was a huge uproar because the majority – the large majority – of the nominees were white.

In years past, authors of color have been nominated and a couple have won RITAs, but no black author has ever won a RITA award.

I finished last year’s post by encouraging everyone to read outside their comfort zone, to buy books by authors of color, and to listen to what authors of color have to say about how they’ve been treated and how they want to be treated.

And then a weird, but not entirely surprising, thing happened.

Nothing.

I mean, I wrote that post with the best of intentions, and in fact I followed my own recommendations, picking up books I might not otherwise have read. The ‘listening’ part didn’t happen, though. Not because I didn’t care, but because…I don’t know…the opportunity didn’t present itself?

Yeah, that’s kinda lame.

See, for the last year and a few months I’ve been treasurer of the Rainbow Romance Writer (RRW), the LGBTQIA chapter of the RWA. Last year when the RITA nominations caused such a stir, it was brought to the attention of the RRW board that authors of color view our chapter as unwelcoming. At the time, we put out a statement vowing to change.

Which makes my inaction that much worse, because I could have worked for an opportunity, and I didn’t.

Did I mention that when the RITA nominations were announced this year, they were just as white as in years past? The biggest difference has been the fall-out: authors of color spoke more forcefully, on twitter and on various RWA forums, calling out the Nice White Ladies whose subtle, unexamined racism perpetuates the system.

I am a Nice White Lady.

I care about the usual range of liberal causes, and I want to live in a world where racism isn’t a thing, where we can all let go of that particular piece of baggage.

It’s a nice idea, but we’re nowhere close to that yet.

In the days since the announcement of this year’s RITA nominations, I’ve kept pretty quiet, preferring to read the twitter threads and Facebook posts and show my support through re-tweets and likes. Which is fine, but it’s also a demonstration of the thing I can’t ever let go of.

My own privilege.

Here’s the thing. Once the social media dust settled last year, I was able to put aside these issues and focus on other things. The authors of color I know – even those I consider friends – don’t have that luxury.

This was brought home to me with particular eloquence in this essay on privilege by NBA player Kyle Korver. (HERE‘s the link to his essay.) More than anything else, this paragraph resonated with me, and prompted me to write this post:

What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally, and no matter how unwavering my support is for NBA and WNBA players of color….. I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice — I’m granted that privilege — based on the color of my skin.

No matter how important I think the fight against racism is, I have the ability to put it aside in a way some of my friends don’t. Hell, I was able to take a whole year off, even after hearing that a group I help run is part of the problem.

It’s a sobering thought.

I’m left asking myself how I’m going to make things different this year. It’s easy to throw things down in a blog post and then let them slide because there’s no accountability. I will say I’m lucky, because the same authors who pointed out that our RRW chapter has issues are willing to work with us, to share their ideas so that we can create a more diverse chapter.

I’ll be working with the other RRW board members to move forward on that dialogue. (Can it be a dialogue when one side is mostly listening?) In addition, the RWA has put together a number of resources for encouraging diversity, and while I don’t want to make a bunch of empty promises, I’ll be exploring what’s there.

I may not be able to change the world, but I can work on myself. I can put more effort into recognizing all the ways the game is rigged in my favor,
in the hope of finding places I can level the playing field, so that next year’s RITA nominations are a celebration of diversity as well as excellence.

Rhythm in Writing

The other day, a friend asked me to beta-read her newest story. (Meaning the project was still a draft and she wanted me to make comments on what worked and what didn’t work.) I love her stuff and was happy to give her new one a read.

Here’s the comment I made on the very first line: You might want to cut <redacted> because it’s a cliche and it messes up the rhythm of the sentence.

Now, ranting about cliches certainly deserves it’s own post, but for today, I want to focus on the second half of that comment.

“….it messes up the rhythm of the sentence.”

Do you pay much attention to the way a sentence flows? I do. It’s one of my favorite parts of writing. I love fiddling with words, because sometimes a small change can take a mundane idea and make it pop.

Here’s an example from my story Change of Heart:

My family disproved the term poor as dirt. See, we was poor, but we had plenty of dirt. We just couldn’t get much to grow.

Now, there are a bunch of different ways I could have communicated the same ideas – the character’s family was poor and their farmland was worn out – but for me, the paragraph’s structure emphasizes the beats.

Is that vague enough for you? Let me see if I can break it down a little more. To my ear, the first sentence has four even beats: my FAMily disPROVED the term POOR as DIRT. The commas in the second sentence scramble that steady rhythm: SEE (pause) we was POOR (pause) but we had PLENTy of DIRT. And then the last sentence picks up the steadiness of the first sentence, but with three beats instead of four: we just COULDn’t GET much to GROW.

Now, when I wrote that paragraph, I didn’t set out with an agenda. I didn’t think “I want X beats here and Y beats there.” I just kept fiddling with the lines until they sounded interesting. I only analyzed the rhythm after the fact – like today, writing this post.

Here’s another example where the rhythm of the sentence really works for me. This is from Alexis Hall’s book, Glitterland.

And when he kisses me it feels a bit like fear and tastes a bit like tears, but it’s as bright and sweet as sherbet, and I decide to call it joy. 

The music in this sentence comes from the way he links the phrases together, mostly by repeating the word “and”. Alexis is a master of cadence. He’s one of the writers I turn to when I need some inspiration to break out of a slump.

Another example is from Sarah Perry’s fantastic The Essex Serpent

He felt his faith deeply, and above all out of doors, where the vaulted sky was his cathedral nave and the oaks its transept pillars: when faith failed, as it sometimes did, he saw the heavens declare the glory of God and heard the stones cry out.

“….and heard the stones cry out.” … sigh …

I’ve only recently discovered Sarah’s work – I read Melmoth last week and OMG spooky and wonderful – and she’s a lovely writer. Her words just flow.

Writing prose isn’t like writing lyrics to a pop song, where there’s a set number of beats to every line. But it is like writing lyrics to a pop song, because when the rhythm is right, your work will sing.

As long as I’ve got your attention, I’ve got a couple books on sale this week. AQUA FOLLIES (gay romance set in 1955 Seattle) is marked down to $0.99 (regular $4.99). Also, HAUNTED (Reluctant psychic meets skeptical historian. Shenanigans ensue) is on sale for $0.99 too!
Jump HERE for AQUA FOLLIES.
Jump HERE for HAUNTED.

Happy reading!!

Margie Lawson has a post over on the Writers on the Storm blog that talks about creating compelling cadence – same idea, different words. Margie’s an excellent teacher, so you should check out her post!

Stuck

I’m not a whiner. I mean, every now and then I’ll feel a little down, but I generally don’t talk about it, at least on social media. I’d rather set a goal, make a plan, and get on with it.

Whatever it is.

But I’m stuck. All the things I should be doing (taxes/writing/housekeeping/bills/gardening/savingtheworld/etcetcetc) are circling me like a damned bunch of alligators. Instead of picking one thing to focus on, I’m curled up in a metaphysical ball, hoping they’ll all go away.

A couple months ago I wrote a post about New Years resolutions that was kind of obnoxious in its enthusiasm. “I’ma do This and This and This and it’s gonna be fun!”

I just….haven’t done much. Instead of using those resolutions to motivate myself, they’ve been closer to a chain of weights around my neck, dragging me down.

For example, one of my goals was to write something my agent can send out on submission. Toward that end, I came up with an idea for a mystery series set in Victorian London, and I’ve put together a decent stack of books for research.

It’s gonna be cool. A brother and sister team – he’s a physician, she’s an apothecary – solve crimes at the edge of Whitechapel.

However – there’s always a however – rather than doing that research, I’ve spent days to weeks telling myself I’ll never be able to create a believable Victorian setting.

Because that’s a much more productive use of my time. (#sarcasm)

A publisher I’m interested in has a call for holiday novellas, with a deadline of May 1st. I have an idea, I played around with character sheets, and knocked out the skeleton of a plot. I’ve even written the first 1500 or so words.

And…they suck. Well, maybe suck is too strong a word. They’re just…not very good. To borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo, they do not spark joy.

But I really can’t blame the words for my current mood. It’s a combination of things: the current political shitstorm (like, Michael Cohen must have titanium gonads), lack of sleep, worry that writers I consider my peers are leaving me in the dust, stress related to putting 2 kids through college.

You know, the usual grind.

Also, lack of sleep.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not usually a public crybaby, so to wrap things up, I’m going to list a few things that are going right.

— Irene and I are working on a new novel!
— My agent saw an editor looking for stories set in either WW1 or WW2, so she queried my Paris story and the editor requested it!
— The damned sun is shining – which might not sound like much, but this is Seattle in February, so…

…spring can’t be too far away, can it?