There’s only ONE MONTH left….

It started with a tweet (I think). A tweet that, as of this evening, has 22.5 thousand likes. I couldn’t coax twitter into showing me the number of responses, but quite a few of my friends tweeted their accomplishments, and it’s even filtered over onto Facebook. People are sharing what’s mattered most to them since 2010.

So, uh, I decided to use the tweet as a point of departure for this blog post.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief summary of what I’ve done since 2010.

  1. The husband and I got two kids into and out of high school. They’re both in college now. The house is quiet. I’m beyond proud of them.
  2. We brought Burnsie home about seven years ago. Ed-the-dog joined him about three years later. I discovered I’ve secretly been a dog person all along.
  3. I left the employer I’d been with for 20+ years to go to work for UWMC. They think I’ve been with them ten years; I’m pretty sure it’s only nine. Either way, I still love taking care of babies.
  4. I transitioned from church musician & front person for a cover band to author. I decided I’d sung all the songs I needed to sing – although if you wanna go to karaoke some night, I’m down.
  5. At the risk of turning myself into a stereotype, I have discovered a deep-seated belief in democracy. Unfortunate that it took an existential threat to prompt this discovery. If you need me, I’m writing #postcardstovoters or getting ready for another demonstration.
  6. I always knew I was going to be a writer when I grew up, and while it took me almost 50 years, I published my first novella in January of 2012. Since then, I’ve published six novels, five novellas, and nine or ten short stories. Two of the novels and two of the novellas were co-written with Irene Preston, and I’d count her friendship as another accomplishment all on its own.
  7. I’ve lived in the same house with the same husband for over twenty years now, and we’re ready for many, many more. I’m a lucky girl.
  8. ETA….I also changed hair color rather substantially…
    (A couple years ago I wrote a post about letting my hair go gray. Here’s a link.)

In the interest of getting back to my NaNoWriMo project, I’m going to end here. I hope you enjoy the last few weeks of 2019, and that the ’20s give you all the reasons to dance!

Surviving Criticism

In the play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington famously says, “A critic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This assessment may seem harsh to some, but I would wager that anyone who has ever created anything for public consumption might be nodding their heads just a little.

As a writer, reviews of the negative persuasion are more or less inevitable. And as I approach the one-year anniversary of my debut novel and the upcoming publication of its sequel, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the role of critics in the creation of art, and my relationship as a creator with that criticism.

I’ll be honest–when my book first hit shelves, I obsessively read every review I could find. Kirkus. SLJ. Booklist. Amazon. Goodreads. Book blogs. Bookstagram. If someone was writing about my book, I was going to read it. And honestly, most of the reviews skewed toward the favorable–not all bestowed glowing 5 stars, but most were decent. But every now and then I’d find a real stinker–you know the kind of review I’m talking about. The kind of review that says they would have cared more about the characters if they’d all died. The kind of review that implies the only good thing about the book was when it ended. The kind of review that obsessively lists everything the reader hated about it, in vicious detail.

And I started noticing something. Every negative review I read counted for more in my head than every positive review–it was like the bad completely outweighed the good. And every negative review I read made it that much harder for me to write.

So I put on my big girl pants and stopped reading reviews. I blocked Goodreads in my browser. I asked my editors to stop forwarding me trade reviews. I deleted the google alert for my book title. And I breathed a sigh of relief. But simply going out of my way to not find reviews doesn’t mean they don’t find me. In this age of social media and author-reader interaction, it’s really hard not to stumble across criticism. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been tagged on Twitter or Instagram for really scathing reviews. It can be almost day-ruining to click on a lovely bookstagram photo, only to scroll down to the caption and get slapped in the face with vitriol directed toward a novel you spent years of your life and buckets of love creating.

And I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t taken a toll on my writing. I’ll be in a flow and a really great metaphor will pop into my head. But now, that metaphor will be accompanied by all the critical junk I’ve read: the penchant for metaphor is distracting or ugh, I can’t stand purple prose or the writing was so flowery I DNF’ed 10 pages in. Dialogue, character development, action sequences–it’s gotten to a point where it’s a challenge not to second-guess every element of my own writing.

Okay. Deep breath. And…segue.

I listen to the local classical music radio station a lot when I’m in the car. Recently, the radio host shared an anecdote about the composer Rachmaninoff. Apparently, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to be publicly performed was received so poorly by critics that he fled the concert hall amid catcalls. One critic compared the piece to the ten plagues of Egypt. “If there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us,” newspaper critic Cesar Cui sneered.

Rachmaninoff was crushed, and stopped composing completely.

“Something within me snapped,” the composer wrote. “All my self-confidence broke down….A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything.”

It was three years before he was able to compose again. It was ten years before he attempted another symphony. But the piece he composed after his depressed hiatus was his Piano Concerto no. 2, arguably his most famous piece and incidentally, my favorite. He would continue composing for another 45 years, right up until his death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get over receiving negative reviews. But that’s okay. I just need to learn to pick myself up after getting knocked down. To turn the other cheek. To let the good outweigh the bad, instead of the other way around. And most importantly, I just have to keep writing. Because the only way to drown out the critics is to let my work speak for itself.

“Once in a golden hour 
I cast to earth a seed. 
Up there came a flower, 
The people said, a weed.” 
― Alfred Lord Tennyson

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!

The Struggle is Real. And That’s Okay.

I intended to write this post yesterday so it would be up and in your mailboxes this morning, but like so much that has happened this year for me, life got in the way and now I’m writing it way later than I intenended.

I didn’t even know where to start with this post because I’ve been struggling so much with writing that I’m not sure if I’m the right person to be writing blog posts about writing. But I have a commitment to this blog so I am here.

All morning I’ve been trying to think of a subject that I haven’t already covered as I’ve tried to show you both my worry about writing and effort to stay positive about my slump. But the more I thought about it, the lower I felt. But that seems like a post on its own, right?

Hear me out.

I went back and double checked to see when I finished writing my last book: February 15, 2019. Yep. Nearly six whole months since I last wrote new words. And I don’t mean the edits or revisions of said book, just daily words of a new book.

I’ve posted about how many words I’ve written in the past few years and how burnout is a real thing and that I needed a break. And how life can be so stressful and demanding that expecting yourself to be able to be creative isn’t always reasonable so it’s okay to step back. And all of that is true, but there came a point where guilt also set in. Guilt over not writing. Guilt over not producing new content. Guilt over calling myself a writer even as I continue to not write. People I don’t see all the time ask me “how’s the writing going?” or “what are you working on now?” and I cringe and want to snap at them that I’m still on a break. But they don’t deserve to be snapped at. I mean, it’s nice to have people interested, but I don’t want to have the same conversation over and over again about taking some time off. I mean I have double digit titles out there, don’t I deserve a break?

Of course I do. But that doesn’t stop the guilt from eating my brain.

And if you’ve written millions of words in less than a decade, six months off isn’t all that long really. So I know I shouldn’t feel guilty, but it’s like telling someone in a depressive episode to just cheer up! I like magic spells, but these don’t work.

If the words aren’t ready, the words aren’t ready. Even if six months feels like a lifetime, like I’m falling behind, like the book sales won’t come when I do finally decide I’m ready again. So I dug my heels into the break.

If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve been talking about a new book I wanted to start for some time now. During my break I’ve been trying, desperately, to get that kernel of an idea to blossom, but I haven’t been able to. And it’s been getting to me, ngl.

I write as a job. This is what I do. I should be able to make this happen. And I do have some skeletons of characters and I think I know it’s a revenge story but revenge for what? No idea. Big Bad in the book? Who knows. It is not flourishing like it should.

So I gave myself permission to stop thinking about it. That was hard. It kinda sucked and made me feel even more bummed out about writing than I already did.

But then something kind of amazing happened.

I heard a new voice.

A new character blossomed in my mind. Exploded, really. She’s nothing like the characters I’ve been trying to develop. She doesn’t live in that world or even one next to it. But then her new BFF showed up. Full of sass and jokes. And they had a conversation, then two, and suddenly I know they’re teenagers and the MC has two dads.

I don’t know the full plot yet, but I can see the mistakes being made, the adventures going wrong, the danger looming for them and… I might be kind of excited to write this story?

When I first started out writing I had an idea for a book. It was a story about stuff I know nothing about, but thought it sounded cool. So I tried to write it. I only ever got about 30k words written. And it took me three years to write that. When I finally gave myself permission to give up that idea I had the idea for Earth: Book One in the Elemental Series and the first day I put my fingers to the keys to write that book, I wrote over 9k words. In one day.

This feels like that did.

I haven’t written anything yet. I haven’t even outlined yet. But the guilt is receding. Hope is returning. A new book feels possible again.

And who knows, maybe getting this book out will free up my brain to let me write that other book.

So the moral of the story post? Sometimes you need time not writing to be able to write and that’s okay. Or something like that.

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!

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.

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.