Writing Research

We often hear writers talk about researching something for hours, maybe even days, just so one character can say one, off-hand comment naturally, like an expert. And trust me, that is a true thing. If you’re a writer and haven’t had to do that yet, just wait.

When I was writing the last book in my apocalyptic trilogy, I was lucky enough to be Twitter friendly with a cool scientist chick who I messaged to ask a few science questions and she was kind enough to loop me into a group email with other scientists to were willing to answer my laundry list of Science-For-Dummies questions (and subsequent follow ups because, I was definitely an English major) so I could figure out the cure for the plague in my story.

But that’s what a dedicated writer should do. Whatever it takes to make the non-fiction in the book as correct as possible. Readers who are familiar with subject matters know when a writer screws up and gets something wrong. There’s nothing worse that being absorbed by a book or other media only to have the creators get something obviously wrong to throw you out of the magical fiction trance.

There’s an art to naturally threading references into your narration so the reader becomes familiar with the characters’ vocation, expertise, etc.

For myself, I’m doing something new for a potential character. I have this creature in my head. She’s interesting and intriguing. She has magic and skills. I’m trying to get to know her so I can get her to tell me her story so I can write it down. I see her, walking in her boning and brocade and frock. But I also hear the tap of her cane on the cobbles. And I can see her using that cane for more than support.

I always say the two most impressive things a writer can do well is to write something scary or something funny. But, if I’m honest, another incredibly difficult thing to write well is fight scenes. They can be so boring. Almost like reading a complicated, dry math problem.

Which is why I’ve always, when I could, actually acted out my fight scenes. I’m incredibly lucky that my husband is a weapons expert and self-defense instructor. So I can go to him and ask if something is realistic. If a particular wound would be fatal or not. And for him to let me act out a fight scene on him. That way, when I go to write the scene, I can describe it in more than just fists and blows. I can describe the whirlwind feeling, the false sense of time, the confusion. There’s always more to physicality than you realize.

So I’m going back to that well and I’m going to be taking cane fighting lessons from him. We’ll no doubt add in sword and dagger and some other fun things, but I’m really looking forward to learning this almost-lost art. Even just talking about it unlocked some ideas in my head about this new, possible story.

Writing research, real, dedicated research is so important to creating a rich, detailed world for you and your readers. It’s a another way to refill your well when you think you’ve run out of ideas. I know my well has run dry and I’ve had difficulty thinking of something new and fresh to write, so if you’ve found yourself in the same boat, it may be time to start researching, learning something new–you never know what it may trigger for you.

Advertisements

Writing Under a Pen Name

Not everyone knows I have a nom de plume, which I do. I started writing under Leila Bryce Sin almost as soon as I started publishing under this name.

My first series was a YA series but I found that I had a little bit of talent at writing racier content and came up with this idea of a race I called Bright Elves. Bright Elves were kind of a take on a succubus who didn’t kill. They raised magic and power through lust and love and all that good stuff.

But, since I was starting out as making my name as a YA author, I was a little worried about the wrong audience picking up something they weren’t expecting from me.

So I decided to publish under Leila Bryce Sin. One of the cool things about writing paranormal erotica was that I didn’t have put out full-length novels every time–a lot of readers of that genre like novellas and short stories. I liked it too because it helped me hone some writing skills. When writing fantasy and world building I tended to get lost in descriptions and narrative, but if your word goal is less than fifty thousand words, you tend to focus on character and plot.

But then I had an idea for a novel. A story set in Las Vegas, one of my favorite places, following an actual succubus who was hiding from the other demons of Hell and working as a bartender at an Irish pub. Billie the Bartender.

I love Billie and her story was pretty well formed in my head when I first set out to write her book. I didn’t realize it was going to be a full-length novel, let alone the trilogy it turned into, but some characters demand more stage time than others.

I got the first novel, Hellfire, and the second novel, Holyfire, written in good time while trying to balance writing under my real name. But the novels I was working on as Shauna Granger definitely took precedence and I realized, as I was starting to hit a creative wall thanks to a massive word count I was building, I didn’t have anything left in the tank to figure out the third and final book.

I’d ended book two with a cliffhanger and the start of a war, I couldn’t not write the ending. But I also couldn’t write it. While I’d given myself a creative outlet for a different audience and type of story, I’d also pushed myself to the limit and couldn’t find it in myself to keep going.

So there was a very long break between publishing Holyfire in April of 2016 and even starting the outline of the final book this past autumn. Honestly, if it wasn’t for NaNo last year, I don’t know if I would have finished writing the book, let alone be ready for it to be live tomorrow. #shamlesspromo

But I did.

So what I can tell you about writing with a pen name is that it gives you a lot of freedom. You can delve into new genres or age categories that you don’t normal wade into. You can try new techniques and voices that don’t lend themselves to your normal milieu. And if those genres are a bit racy and you don’t want friends and family to know it’s your work, they don’t ever have to know! But you need to be careful. As with any creative job, it takes something from you, so if you’re not careful, if you don’t find a balance, you can wear yourself out and burn out before you’re ready.

Hamilton: Three Lines That Grab Me as a Writer

I want this poster!

Earlier this month, my mom took me to see Hamilton in Chicago as an early 40th birthday present (my birthday is in August, but we were up there for a conference). I knew it was going to be good, but I was not prepared for how much it blew me away! I could go on and on about how great the choreography and lighting were, and how much of a genius Lin Manuel Miranda is, but this is about an aspect I never anticipated…how much Hamilton touched me as a writer.

I cry at musicals. A lot. It’s because I love theater and it makes me very emotional. But there were several moments that touched me deep down as a writer and made me sob all the more, but this time, they were happy tears because I knew someone else–and Lin Manuel nonetheless–felt the same way.

First, from a song called Non-Stop, which is the last song in the first act: “Write like you’re running out of time. Write like you need it to survive.”

HOLY CRAP! THIS IS ME! I have never felt so seen as I did during this number. I constantly feel the pressure (self-induced and otherwise) to write more and faster. I’m scared I will die before I get write all of the stories in my head. Writing is literally all I do outside of my day job because a) I LOVE it and b) I feel like if I do anything else it will just get in the way of realizing my dreams.

There is a certain obsession that can overcome a writer that I am feeling very keenly as I’m researching my first biography. I don’t know that I can explain it. It is an extra drive, a stronger sense of need, of owing the characters your all, of being put on this planet to write…so you have to do it ALL THE TIME.

Secondly, from My Shot, perhaps one of the most iconic lines:
“I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Yes, yes, everyone and their brother loves this song. But as an indie author, it has special meaning to me. People ask me all the time how I win so many awards, etc. I don’t want to sound flippant, but honestly, I win because I enter contests. Of course, you have to have a great product, but you can’t win if you don’t play.

Being an indie author is all about taking chances. Sometimes you win big, like I did with taking a chance on a new company called Taleflick and ending up with a movie option for Madame Presidentess. Sometimes you lose so much money you want to cry. *cough* print ad in a magazine *cough* But the key is you have to try. Pay attention to the opportunities in the industry, investigate them and if they sound good to you, inquire. That’s all it takes. If you see a shot, take it. If you don’t win, you’ve lost nothing (or as in my case with the ad, you’ve only lost money). But if you do, it could be your ticket to success.

Last, but certainly not least, from the closing number of the show: “And when my time is up, Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?…Who tells your story?”

First of all, “when my time is up, have I done enough?” OMG, the question every artist asks. And chances are good the answer will be no, because there is always something new to create. It’s both the blessing and the curse of being a creative.

As for the other half of the quote: I write biographical historical fiction and now biography because the idea of someone’s life being forgotten rips my guts out. That’s how strongly I feel about it. That’s why I choose the unknown/little-known characters. Everyone has done something worthy of being remembered and if someone doesn’t tell our story, it feels like we never lived. I want to save as many historical women from that fate as possible.

Will my story be worth telling someday? I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I’ll be over here “writing day and night like I need it to survive, not throwing away my shot” and eventually, winning a Pulitzer. Just you wait.

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.

How I’ve Been Refilling the Well

My forthcoming novel DIAMOND & DAWN (AMBER & DUSK book two) was not only the first sequel I ever wrote, but it was also the first book I wrote under contract–meaning the manuscript wasn’t written at the time my publisher decided to acquire the novel. I’d written five complete, full length novels at the time I signed the contract, so I wasn’t really worried about the fast turn-around and bracing revision schedule my editors requested.

I maybe should have been.

I wrote D&D from scratch to relatively polished in the space of 4 months, over the holidays no less (and I am NOT a fast drafter). I completed the first revision in three weeks, which included cutting over 20k words and restructuring the entire manuscript. The final revision had to be finished in one week, earlier this month. And that’s when I realized I’d been on deadline for the better part of 6 months!

Part of me wanted to jump right in with a new plot bunny I had simmering on the brain. Another part of me wanted to sit on the couch and do literally nothing for the foreseeable future. I confess, I opted for option number 2! For the past week or so, I’ve tried my best to refill the well, with good books, interesting TV, and a few high-profile movies. Here’s what I’ve been doing to refresh my creativity!

The Magicians, FX (available to stream on Netflix)

Okay, I am officially this show’s new #1 mega fan, and I can’t stop talking about it to anyone who’ll listen (and even those who won’t). I watched Season 1 when it came out a few years ago, but wasn’t blown away. I more or less forgot about it until I stumbled across Season 2 on Netflix, and then…I couldn’t stop watching. People, this show is weird AF, and I love it so much it’s hard to put into words. It’s like Harry Potter had an R-rated baby with Narnia, and then that baby got stuck in a time loop and maybe did some drugs. No, I’m not making any sense. Yes, you should watch it anyway.

Enchantée, by Gita Trelease

I heard of this novel sometime around the release of A&D, and automatically had an attitude towards it based on some superficial similarities to my own book. But I’m truly glad I wound up picking it up! Ms. Trelease has crafted a vibrant, romantic, brutal vision of peri-revolutionary France, complete with magic, love, idealism, glamor, and even hot-air balloonists! I devoured this book like candy, and would absolutely recommend it to fans of YA, history, and fantasy.

The Umbrella Academy, Netflix

Everyone on Twitter was talking about this show, so I decided to give it a whirl. I finished the season, but if I’m honest, it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. I enjoyed the premise, some of the off-beat elements of the world, and a few of the characters (I’LL DIE FOR YOU KLAUS). But I anticipated nearly every twist in the plot, and had a hard time connecting with several of the character beats. I’d download the soundtrack, but I probably won’t watch Season 2.

Vanity Fair, Amazon Prime TV

I’m only a few episodes into this one, so I can’t speak to its entirety. Now, I love the 2004 Reese Witherspoon version of Vanity Fair as a guilty pleasure–it’s ridiculous and over the top, but the costumes are fantastic and Witherspoon is a delight as a truly wicked Becky Sharp. This adaptation takes a different tone. This Becky Sharp is still smart, ambitious, and cunning, but the creators of this show give us a much better sense of Becky’s milieu–the social stratification of her world that forces her to go to such lengths to take what she believes she deserves from people who loathes everything she represents. It paints her as, dare I say, a slightly sympathetic anti-heroine. I look forward to seeing how her character sharpens over the course of the series!

I think I’ve nearly reached the end of my self-enforced writing hiatus–today I had to fight the urge to open up a new document and start on that project (I stopped myself because I need to at least pretend to outline first). But I’m glad I took the time to refill the creative well–consuming new stories in every medium helps my brain look at my own work with fresh eyes!

What have you been watching, reading, or otherwise enjoying lately?

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!

The Difficulties of Prolific Writing

I wasn’t really sure where to start with this post. I knew I wanted to talk about the struggle of writing prolifically and living up to reader expectations and how unreasonable this has gotten. But I wanted to be careful not to sound angry or ungrateful. I figured the first thing I should do is figure out how many words I’ve written since I started writing seriously.

And that’s what sort of stopped me for a second. Once I got the numbers it kind of… killed something inside of me. Because it’s a lot. Especially when I tell you the time frame in which I wrote these words.

If you’ve been following along, a couple of us have mentioned the plagiarism scandal that plagued the Romance community this past month. An “author” claimed to have used a ghost writer to help her churn out books at the expected rate her readers had come to enjoy. Apparently using ghost writers to get a shit-ton of books written quickly has become a thing. Because, here’s something a lot of readers don’t know: most writers aren’t wealthy and they don’t become rich over the success of one book. Maybe not even a whole series. So the pressure to publish multiple books a year (even 1 a month) has become a real thing if you want to be financially successful as a writer. And don’t at me about doing it for art, you want multiple books a year from a writer, then the girl needs to get paid enough not to a have a day job.

If a writer makes four figures, they’re doing better than most. If a writer makes five figures, that’s considered very successful–not per year, we’re talking *ever*. But we only hear about the major names and people think they’re over-night successes (they’re not).

I started seriously writing around 2009-2010. It took me a long time to find my voice and that first book. I did what you’re supposed to do when you finish your book while you’re querying–I wrote the next. And the next. I was half-way into the third book when both my husband and I lost our day jobs and my first book hadn’t been picked up by an agent yet.

Facing unemployment is fucking terrifying. I was lucky at the time, in that, we had a little savings. Not a lot, but some. So we decided, together, that we were going to use the time to pursue our dream jobs. He began getting certified for his and I decided to self-publish my first series.

Because I already had the next two books written, I was able to release them quicker than traditional publishing would have. I spaced it out so I could finish the fourth book and give myself some time for the fifth. But I’d set that expectation of a new book every six months.

If I could go back and slap my 2011 self, I would.

Releasing five books in two and a half years was so stupid.

Some writers only write one book for their whole carrier. Others, just one series. So really, publishing five books could have been a lifetime of work. Then I started the next to build and keep the momentum of readership I was building.

To be self-published you have to do everything and it takes a lot out of you with each book. But I pushed on, because, I knew there was a chance things would really take off and explode and I’d get the readership I needed to be long-term successful. And I didn’t stop to realize I’d already accomplished more than most writers had in the past. I was supporting our household on my income. It was great.

So I kept going. And I developed a pen name so I could write racier stuff and not confuse my YA readers. But I was constantly writing. Book after book after book. Only taking a week or two off between finish a rough draft before attacking the second draft.

Then, while the book was with my editor, I was outlining the next book so when edits were done I could start all over again, right away.

There were times where I wrote a whole 80-90k word book in one fucking month.

Eventually, by April of last year, I’d written the equivalent of 24 books (under my pen name I liked to write novels and novellas and short stories so the novellas and short stories were bundled into short novels).

So in less than ten years I’d written 24 books.

I was so done. I was totally and completely burned out.

I had a trilogy I’d been working on under my pen name and didn’t have the third book written, not even outlined, and I just couldn’t do it.

I’d run out of words. Out of ideas.

So I took some time off.

I didn’t manage to start writing that last book until November of last year (thank goodness for NaNo), having outlined half of it in October. But that was six months of complete radio silence from my characters, from my muse, from anything.

And I felt terrible.

I should have felt good about the time. I should have enjoyed it. Given myself permission. But instead I worried about my career and losing readers. But to be honest, that’s something I’ve been dealing with for the last couple of years. Because I couldn’t keep up the pace of 2-4 books a year readers slipped away. Or, and this is possible too, because I was putting out too many, readers couldn’t keep up.

I honestly don’t know. Maybe both are true?

So, write like the wind until your fingers bleed and you can’t think or take your time and let the words come naturally and there are going to be groups on either side that are angry. And, couple that with KPD Select and readers wanting books to be free or at least almost free and you realize how small the royalties are going to be, so you need a catalog of books to make it financially feasible to fight this and constantly dealing with pirates stealing your work. It’s a lot of pressure.

Every time I put out a book, no matter how fast, the first thing I’d hear from at least one reader would be: WHEN’S THE NEXT ONE COMING OUT I FINISHED THE BOOK IN ONE SITTING!

Now. Yay. Thank you. But also… I can’t.

I told you I’d tell you my numbers so here they are. Since starting writing around 09-10, I’ve written the equivalent of 25 books with a total of 2,134,547 words.

Two Million One Hundred Thirty Four Thousand Five Hundred Forty Seven.

That’s an average of 213,454 words a year.

I have been dying to start working on my witchy book. I’ve been talking about it for a year. And I have no bloody idea where to start. Nothing is coming to me. The inspiration, the excitement, the drive to write it, is gone.

It’s up there with those two million+ words.

This is what happens when we put pressure on writers to hurry up, hurry up, hurry up and expect the books to cost less than a cup of coffee so authors are constantly worrying about paying bills and keeping a roof over our heads. It takes a huge toll on us. We run out of ideas. We run out of words. I am terrified right now that I’ll never write something as good as my Ash & Ruin series again. I am terrified I can’t think of a new magic system.

But, mostly, I am tired. And I know a lot of other writers are too. We write more than a life time’s worth of words in such a short amount of time and yet, it never feels like enough. It always feels like we’re falling behind.

I don’t feel like I should end this here on such a melancholy note. So, if you’re wondering what you can do to help, other than obviously buying a writer’s book(s), you can spread the word about your favorite books. We say it again and again, but reviews are so important to our success that’s why we’re always almost begging for them. Go write a review, copy it and paste it to every retail website that carries the books, yes, even if you didn’t buy it there. Every review helps and every review makes us feel a little better.

Maybe your review will be the one that gives a writer her inspiration back.