It’s Time to Rethink the “Great American Novel”

Yesterday I came across an article by an author who was trying to both define and write The Great American Novel (GAN). It got me wondering about what, exactly, the GAN is, why we are supposed to aspire to write it, and if the idea of the GAN still holds water today. It is something I hadn’t previously considered–I guess because I write commercial fiction and not literary and most definitions for some reason preclude commercial fiction.

First, how do you define The GAN? According to Wikipedia, it is “a canonical novel that is thought to embody the essence of America, generally written by an American and dealing in some way with the question of America’s national character.” Other criteria that have been developed include:

  • It must encompass the entire nation and not be too consumed with a particular region.
  • It must be democratic in spirit and form.
  • Its author must have been born in the United States or have adopted the country as his or her own.
  • Its true cultural worth must not be recognized upon its publication. (Source)

Let’s break this down:

“A canonical novel”
So it basically has to be a modern classic. But who determines that? Is it academia, critics, the public, or some combination? For the most part, what we define as a “classic” today is what we were told was classic in school. And does a classic always remain a classic? As we’ve very clearly seen over the last few years, culture changes, and with it, so does the definition of what is acceptable, both in subject matter and in regard to the behavior/attitude of the authors. (Let’s face it, the authors of some “classics” were sexist pigs.) Do we allow works with problematic content/authors to continue to be labeled as classic (as products or their time) or does the definition change over time?

“Thought to embody the essence of America”/It must encompass the entire nation and not be too consumed with a particular region.
My first thought is “whose America?” My America as a middle-class white woman is going to be vastly different from that of a Black woman, a white man, a non-binary person, an immigrant, or someone of a class above or below mine. The “essence of America” used to be considered that of the middle-to-upper class white man. But I would argue there is no one essence anymore, nor was there ever–there was simply a prevailing or ruling cultural viewpoint.

As for encompassing the entire nation, how does one do that? Unless you’ve lived everywhere for a length of time, how do you know what it is like to live in a certain place or be from that place? We have different viewpoints, attitudes and values in different parts of the country. If they mean the theme or plot has to be applicable to the entire country and not just, say, the Midwest or South or whatever, I guess I can get that.

Generally written by an American” or “Its author must have been born in the United States or have adopted the country as his or her own.”
Some people argue with this point because it rules out authors from other countries, but I can see it. As I said above, how do you really know a place if you’re not from there or you haven’t lived there for some serious length of time? I LOVE England. But no matter now much of an anglophile I am, can I really write something true to what it means to be English without having lived there? I don’t personally think so.

“It must be democratic in spirit and form.”
I’m not sure what this means. I guess they mean it needs to reflect the democratic system/values behind America. I think I can get behind that.

“Its true cultural worth must not be recognized upon its publication.”
Soooo, does this mean it can’t be a bestseller when it comes out? That it can’t win awards, etc.? That it has to molder in obscurity for 50-100 years? This is just dumb. How can it be a classic if no one at the time thinks it is destined to be? I think this may be an old point that doesn’t apply to an more literate and engaged audience like we have today. I also think it may be a precaution to keep commercial fiction out of the mix because it is what you see on the bestseller lists for the most part.

Why is the GAN important? Is the GAN still relevant today?
If you look at the GAN as it used to be conceived–by well off white men about the white male experience–no, it’s not relevant anymore, at least not to anyone outside of that group. I honestly couldn’t care less what some white dude thinks about American life. We’ve heard their blathering for centuries. They can continue to blather, but I also want to hear the voices of the underrepresented: the people of color, the immigrants, the women, those on the spectrum, the disabled, and those part of the LGBTQIA+ community.

As a concept, I can see the Great American Novel as a kind of guide or signpost about what it means to be American. However, the qualifications given really preclude this kind of book from ever existing. I mean, if it can’t focus on a region, how can it get to the essence of those people? And how can one single book really reflect the essence of a time period? I know some people argue that The Great Gadsby captured the essence of 1920s America. (As someone who HATES that book, I certainly hope not. If it does that means most men were pretenders and most women were featherheads.) But not everyone during that decade was a flapper or a bright young thing, so I don’t see how it can claim or be claimed to represent the whole of a country or period.

Instead, can there be a GAN for each decade, each class or for different parts of the country? It’s certainly more likely than there being one that encompasses everything. As Cheryl Strayed wrote, “the idea that only one person can produce a novel that speaks truth about the disparate American whole is pure hogwash.”

However, if we must persist in this idea of a GAN, then I believe we need to include commercial fiction (whether bestseller or not), break the definition into more manageable pieces, and allow for more than one perspective or book to encompass a part of what it means to be American. I actually wouldn’t mind if there was a collection of great American novels (notice I didn’t cap that)–ones that represent what it is like to live in all strata of American society. What it is like to grow up poor, be homeless, be in jail, have your rights taken away (or never granted) by law, to be blind/single/gender fluid/etc. in a world built for sighted/couples/cis/etc. people. What it is like to be an East coast elite or working class person, a Midwestern mogul or farmer, a Southern woman of color or a poor Appalachian. What it is like to rise from one thing to another within your community/culture/race. You get my point. That would be a really interesting reading experience.

If you want examples of books I would include, I would say that Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone and The Four Winds are both great American novels. The Great Alone vividly captures the isolation and beauty of life in Alaska and also what it must of been like to come back from Vietnam with PTSD, but not have a word or diagnosis for it yet. The Four Winds is an amazing portrayal of life during the Dust Bowl in the South/Middle Plains and as an emigrant seeking shelter in California. Both books are extremely immersive and teach as they entertain. I also think The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is an excellent example of what it must be like to be a Black teenager in a society where you have to fear the police.

Now, if we could just get the reading and literary communities behind something like this that would be a huge accomplishment. It would also be an inspiration for writers everywhere because it would mean any and all of us have the potential to write the GAN.

A reading journey with many, many turnouts

I was recently invited to promote one of my books on a website, specifically World of Ash, my dear, dear little apocalyptic baby. In the promo they wanted me to share some books I recommend for readers to enjoy that would be shelved next to WOA. Great concept, I love promoting other books, especially if it helps readers understand my books so they know if mine is one they would enjoy,

There was just one problem: I haven’t read any Dystopian, Apocalyptic, or Post-Apocalyptic books in ages.

I realized any books I would be recommending would be 5 to even 10 years old. That really had me hung up for awhile. One, would people want to hear about books that weren’t the hot new thing? And two, when had I stopped reading these genres?

Of course there’s nothing wrong with reading older books. And considering most of the books we read in our formative years are decades, if not centuries old, 5-10 years old is nothing. So I did write my post and I focused on some of the books I read around the time I got the inspiration for WOA, explaining why each of these books spoke to me.

But it got me thinking about how I’ll become obsessed with one particular genre and I’ll consume multiple titles over the course of months or years all shelved in the same places and then, just suddenly, poof! No more.

In high school I read a lot of sword and sorcery. A lot of Mercedes Lackey and her contemporaries. Her Elemental Masters would greatly influence my first series, The Elemental Series. Nothing at all like her books, being modern day and teenagers, but still, influenced. I also read my way through most of Anne Rice’s catalogue, gotta love me some vampires and witches!

In college I found a taste for some contemporary romance, probably because they were a good, easy escape from all of my college texts.

After college I found my way back to vampires and witches, discovering paranormal romance and devoured all of the Laurell K Hamiliton books, Keri Arthur, Jeaniene Frost, Patricia Briggs, and Kim Harrison. I mean. I could have opened a tiny used bookstore with just their books alone.

Then, as my bookshelves sagged under the weight of their lengthy series, I found YA. And yes, it was Twilight. You can hate, that’s okay. I had a very bad flu over the course of two weeks and I needed something I could escape into, that didn’t ask me to think too hard to follow complicated plots, and was long enough to fill the time. My dear husband went back to the store for each books as I finished them. And, thanks to Twilight, I realized I wanted to read more fantasy YA. And thank goodness I did because that would lead to my writing career.

Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, Lauren DeStefano, Veronica Roth took me through beautiful fantasy realms, new magic systems, and wonderfully flawed but strong female leads. From there I wandered into Steampunk and with grabby hands added Kady Cross’s beautiful covers to my bookshelves.

For a long time I really only read fantasy but eventually I would find a love for cozy murder mysteries, especially Gretchen McNeil and Charlaine Harris (she does more than steamy vampires!).

Then, of course, zombies became all the rage and I found my way into apocalyptic books, which would lead me to Dystopia, which I would find people tended to conflate the two but they are different!

Somewhere in all of that I still read all the Harry Potters, most of Neil Gaiman’s library, and any number of books that are somewhere in my memory now. But I defintetly get hooked on one genre and read it until I am sick of it.

Surprisingly, as much as I love a murder documentary, a paranormal thriller, and a good horror movie (not gore!), I have yet to find a book in that same genre that can captivate me. I think I need the dark room, the ominous music, the silence, for that magic to work and you can’t exactly do that with a book. So I want the fantastical world, the tension of mystery, and the beautiful words for my books.

It’s strange to look back over a reading journey and realize just how vast and varied our tastes run. Maybe that’s why I have three different genres out there in my works. I’ve yet to master sword and sorcery in writing, and I don’t know if I ever plan to, but I am looking forward to seeing what else my reading and writing muses have in store for me.

How much is my time worth?

This post comes out of a couple different places. One, I’ve been pondering my goals for next year. Two, I made more money from book sales this year than I ever have before. (I also spent more this year, and after almost ten years of publishing, have yet to break even.) And three, I’ve expended a whole lot of time and energy over the last couple weeks making Christmas presents.

See, secretly I’m an embroidery nerd. I’ve done cross stitch, crewelwork, needlepoint, black work, and hardanger embroidery, and to a limited extent, I’ve designed my own projects. Needlework was my main hobby in my 40s, until I blew up a disc in my back and couldn’t sit for long periods of time. I couldn’t sit and stitch, but I could lay on my belly and write. I started with journaling to keep from going crazy, moved on to short stories, and voila! A writer was born!

I also crochet, but that’s more of an addiction than anything else. It keeps my hands busy and it’s less toxic than smoking cigarettes.

This morning as I was putting the finishing touches on some hardanger embroidery ornaments – here’s the link to hardanger’s Wikipedia page in case you’re unfamiliar with the style – I started thinking about how much time it had taken to make each one. The two smaller ones took about four hours each. The larger ones took….longer. The materials don’t cost a whole lot, but even so, for me to earn at least minimum wage, I’d have to sell the small ones for around $75.

The large ones would be…more. Which is why I’m giving them as gifts and not trying to sell them on Etsy.

You can find hardanger ornaments on Etsy, though, and for a lot less than I’d charge. (This one is pretty. And so it this one.) Which means either I’m slow (probably) or the market won’t support what the sellers’ time is really worth.

I mean, if you’re selling a hand-made ornament for $10, either you can finish one in 30 minutes or you’re earning what was minimum wage when I first entered the job market – $3.35/hour.

Which brings me back to publishing. I honestly don’t know how many hours it takes me to write a book, but for the sake of discussion, I can use last month’s NaNoWriMo challenge. I wrote 50,000 words in November, or a little under 1700 words a day. It takes me about 2 hours to write 1700 words, longer if I’m distracted.

My best selling book this year, Soulmates, is about 75,000 words long. Rather than challenge you with a story problem, I’ll just say that, assuming I write 1700 words in 2 hours, it took me 90 hours to write 75,000 words. Cool. I made decent money, if I only count the writing time. That hourly rate gets lower when I add in the editing, with all the false starts and rewrites that went into the final draft.

And after I back out the cost of the editor, the cover artist, and promotion, I’m lucky if I’m making minimum wage….for 1976. ($3.35/hour!)

So why do it? Why spend all the time and thought and energy on a project with little hope of financial reward? We’re only allotted so many hours in this life, and given that I’ll turn 60 on my next birthday….well, you do the math. Is publishing where I want to spend my time?

I’ve talked about retiring from my hospital job in the next couple years, with an eye toward earning enough in book royalties so I won’t have to tap my retirement accounts right away. To do that, I’d need to do more than break even, an elusive goal so far. It means I’d need to keep up the 4-books-a-year pace, and I’d need to pay more attention to the ‘Zon categories so that my upcoming projects align with what’s selling well.

I’d also need to layer on the butter. (See 7 Figure Fiction by T. Taylor for how to use Universal Fantasies, what she calls butter, to sell books.)

But do I want to do all that? I’m still pondering. Over the last ten years, I’ve invested a lot of my time – my self, my spirit, my creative drive – in this publishing project, and I’d like to see it pay off. Or maybe it already has paid off, in the satisfaction I feel knowing I sent some really good stories out into the world.

If you need me, I’m the one with the crochet hook and the wild eyes…

Social Media and Book Sales

So the big hubbub in publishing right now is the old question of whether or not social media sells books. This all started when the New York Times published an article about celebrity books and how these people with millions of followers have books that aren’t selling. Then the wonderful Jane Freedman posted a rebuttal that was, of course, exactly right.

Here’s my take for what it is worth:

The answer is yes and no. I’ve personally bought books because I saw them on social media. Even from quasi-celebrity Christine Quinn of Selling Sunset reality show fame. When it comes out will I have wasted by money? Likely. But I like how she has turned her villain status in the show into an empire and I’d like to see if I can learn a thing or two. Now, would I buy a book by Billie Eilish (whom the NYT article uses as an example)? No, but I barely know who she is.

And that’s the key. Big name or unknown, you have to market to your demographic. And that isn’t everyone. It isn’t even everyone who is following you. Yes, I get that it appears that your social numbers are a built-in audience, but that is faulty logic. First, there can be a lot of cross-over between platforms. When I like someone, I follow them on all platforms. So I may look like 4 or 5 potential sales, when I am really only one. Second, a lot of people follow just to follow, not necessarily to buy books, especially celebrities. I’ll give you an example. I follow Joanna Gaines because I like her and Chip and their show. But would I buy her books? Nope. I just don’t care enough–if I want to read it, I will borrow it from the library where it costs me nothing. Now, if you told me my fav actress of all time, Rachelle Lefevre, was writing a book, even if it was about her experience as a mother (I don’t like kids, much less have them) I’d be like

For all authors, its the level of engagement and fandom that counts. Even as small fish as I am, I have one person who, the second I post about writing something new, says the same two things: 1) write faster! and 2) when can I pre-order? THOSE are the fans who are going to buy your book because of social. (And yes, there are casual fans who see it on social and say, “why not?” But you can’t count on that because there is no way of know when/if that is going to happen.) As an author, I KNOW I have sold books because of social media. It is a huge part of how I hit the USA Today list a few years ago. (Here’s the whole post on what I did in case you want to see it.) People have told me they bought books on Facebook, Insta, etc. However, that was mostly because of personal connections, not ads. I know some people who are masters at them, but that is not me. It is really the personal connection/recommendation that sells books on social when you are not a household name. Because seriously, how often do you see a name you don’t know and go “I may take a chance on that.” It happens, but not often. That is why I was so devastated when FB/Insta deleted my accounts a few months ago. I had put YEARS of work into cultivating those relationships and then they were just gone, literally overnight, and there was nothing I could do.

What I hope comes out of all of this is that publishing stops OBSESSING over an author’s social numbers. People who aren’t good at social (not everyone is and that is okay) or who have had their accounts decimated like I did show up like unattractive prospects when too much emphasis is put on these arbitrary numbers. They aren’t a true indicator of future success, which is the point of the NYT article, at least not when taken alone.

In end, social media is nothing more than a tool in our marketing toolbox. It may sell some books, but no one should rely on it to do all the work. A book is only successful when everyone involved–the author, the publisher, the agent, the friends and fans of the author–does the work. That is why we beg for reviews, word of mouth recommendations and have street teams. That is why BookTok is a thing. Everything we do is in the service of selling our books, not just assuming they magically will. Unless you are Nora Roberts, that is. But even she has a publicity team and an assistant to do her social (she sometimes pops on with her own posts, too) and those HUGE NYT ads are proof that her publisher is still pushing her books, even when her name alone is enough to sell millions.

To get the goods, you have to put in the work. That is al there is to it.

How NaNoWriMo is like yoga.

This is not me. This is a photo by Oksana Trajan from Unsplash.

Today’s post is going to be short(ish) because it’s NaNoWriMo and I have words to write. For those of you who haven’t seen the acronym before, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, when writers of all levels all over the world set a goal for the month of November. Traditionally the goal is 50,000 words, which will give people who’ve always wanted to write a novel a good start on one.

It’s also fantastic for those of us who’ve written more than one book but just need a little (or a large) push to crank out the next one.

You can set any goal for the month, and there’s a bajillion ways to connect with other authors while you’re working to meet that goal. That’s the thing that makes NaNo fun! There are groups you can join through the NaNoWriMo website, or you can connect with people through the #NaNoWriMo hashtag on twitter and pretty much any other social media platform.

So how is all this like yoga?

For those of us who’ve committed to the 50k word goal, that works out to a little over 1600 words a day. Every day. All month long. I find that even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about what I will be writing or what I’ve just written and how those pieces fit together. I find that the process of living and breathing the story forces me to get out of my own way.

And that’s how I connected it to yoga.

I took my first yoga class in about 1990, and have practiced off and on ever since. Since the pandemic started, though, I’ve been practicing much more regularly, mostly by streaming classes from Sun Yoga in Honolulu. In a recent class, the teacher said something that really resonated with me. She said that part of yoga was learning to breathe in uncomfortable positions. For me, that idea highlighted how, at its essence, yoga is about developing a connection to the breath. (Even when you’re curled in a ball trying to get your forehead to your knee.)

Yoga is about the process, and NaNoWriMo is about the process. Yoga connects you to your breath, and writing regularly is a way of developing a connection to the words (or to your creativity, or fill in whatever concept works for you.) And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a couple thousand words to write.

Hang on…as long as I’m here, I figure I’ll share the links to a couple of promos I’m involved with….

Over 40 great holiday romances by some of the best in the business! And they’re all ON SALE!

This one’s fun and FREE!!

Writer on a Deadline: Self Care

Image purchased from Adobe Stock

I have two books due by the end of the year. Well, actually one is due Dec. 3. I haven’t even started the second one yet. (Research is done, and I know I will get it done on time.) I have a full time job. Normally this would mean I am big ol’ stress puppy shedding cortisol like fur.

But today I woke up in a very “take my sweet time about everything” mood. This is totally not me. I live my life in fast forward. But I’m allowing myself to enjoy this dream-like state. Its what I imagine Luna Lovegood feels like all the time.

I think part of the reason for it is that we are at our peak fall color here in St. Louis. Normally that happens three weeks earlier, but the weather this year has been crazy warm. So now when I wake up and look out the window, I see beautiful orange-red trees; when I sit at this computer I see the gold trees out the front. Fall is my favorite time of year.

So despite being crazy busy, I’m leaning into the idea of self care where I can get it. I’m on a new medicine that my body is getting used to, so on the days it makes me sick, I try to be kind to myself and slow down however I have to while still getting work done. I’m listening to my body about what it wants to eat (or doesn’t, depending on the day).

But I’m also treating myself to a few special things in an effort to keep my sanity:

  • I have a tradition that every fall on the peak color weekend, I order Subway and go to a park to watch the leaves fall while I eat it. That came from my family always going “leaf watching,” and that is what we ate as part of our family picnic. This year I can’t take too much time away from writing and my appetite isn’t what it usually is, but I bought the sandwiches anyway. I’m cutting them into small sections and eating what I can once a day until they are gone to prolong the beauty of this tradition.
  • I’ve recently started journaling once or twice a day (usually when I wake up or before I go to bed) and that is providing some wonderful insights into my brain and my life. Plus, it is a peaceful way to start and end the day, regardless of what comes in between.
  • You better darn well believe that I am going to devour the new season of Selling Sunset when it comes out Nov. 21, deadline or no.
  • Instead of stressing myself over trying to be more active, I’m treating myself to daily stretching and listening to to audio version of A Discovery of Witches, one of my favorite books, when I can get out and walk around the neighborhood.
  • This one is a little odd, but I’m keeping my bathroom clean. I mean do clean it on a regular basis, but I’m doing it more frequently than usual. The idea came from an ad that said something about it being the first place you go in the morning and the last place you see at night (other than your bed, obviously). For some reason that really struck me. I want to begin and end my days in clean.

Before I know it, these books will be done and I’ll be into the new stressors of January, turning one of my books into an audio play and writing and recording a historical fiction master class. But after that, all I’m going to do is write fiction (and the non-fiction I’m under contract for) for the rest of the year.

Once this is all said and done, I’m going in for a big treat–the kind of thing most people think of when they think self-care. Next April I’m going to a conference in Bellingham, Washington. I’ve been to it before, so I’m going up a few days early to use the time for myself. I LOVE the hotel. There is a spa right by it at which I plan to get a massage and mani-pedi. Then I’m just going to write and enjoy myself.

I guess my point is to work little acts of self-care into your life. They can be as simple as going to bed earlier, drinking more water or saying no to a demand you don’t really want to do–anything that you can do for you. I know it is making my crazy time a little easier.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

A dank fog creeps between trees that reach with skeletal claws towards a darkening sky. Brittle leaves clatter together in a chill wind that moans over chimney-tops and hammers at windows well-shuttered against the night.

Are those bats that flit across the moon and cast shadows over unlit thresholds? Or something worse? Hold each other tightly and keep your doors barred, children, for something wicked this way comes.* 

Witches occupy an interesting place in the popular imagination. Sure, the first thing that may spring to mind for many is the stereotype of a warty hag on a broomstick with a black cat as a familiar. But in both history and story, the figure of a witch is so much more than a cackling crone. While I’m not here to go too deep into the triple aspects of the Goddess and the persecution of powerful women and spells as manifestation, I do think the stories we tell about witches (in books, film, and TV), tell us a lot about how we see ourselves. So, to celebrate both the season of all things creepy and my own love for a good witch narrative, here are a few of my favorite fictional witches.

*Author’s note: To quote Xander Harris–“witches they were persecuted. Wicca good and love the earth and women power and I’ll be over here.”

1. The Weird Sisters, Macbeth

“Bubble bubble, toil and trouble.”

In many ways, this infamous trio of witches in Shakespeare’s famous play about the downfall of a Scottish thane probably set the stage (ah-hyuck) for all other witches who came after. Instantly recognizable today with their tattered robes, bubbling cauldron, and portents of the future chanted upon the moor, the three witches act as agents of chaos and destruction. Offering power in one hand and doom in the other, they foretell Macbeth’s rise to power, inciting him to corruption, regicide, and ultimately war. “Fair is foul and foul is fair!”–isn’t that, perhaps, the very nature of witchcraft?

2. Sabrina, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch

In both the 90’s sitcom and the recent, more serious, reboot, Sabrina is a teenaged witch who lives with her aunts, Hilda and Zelda, and her black cat Salem. She has to balance the strangenesses of her magical life with her very normal high-school life, as she navigates friendship, family, and love.

Although each version of the show offers different tones and themes, both grapple with the central question–can magic ever be accepted in a world that doesn’t believe in it? And can a witch really ever coexist with mortals? Or are the two worlds fundamentally at odds with each other?

2. Medea, Medea

In Euripides’ classic play, Medea is a barbarian witch from Colchis who, when her husband Jason abandons her to marry a princess, decides to take dire action. She sends a poisoned gown and coronet to the princess, which kills both her and her father, the king. And because killing Jason’s bride-to-be wasn’t hurtful enough, she then murders her own children to exact revenge on her faithless husband.

Warped maternal instincts are another hallmark of many witch narratives. There are few things more terrifying than a mother who hates instead of loves, destroys instead of nurtures. Feminine power is arguably at its most terrifying when it contradicts the way society has taught us women ought to behave.

3. Sally and Gillian, Practical Magic

In one of my all time favorite Hallowe’en movies, two witch sisters raised by their eccentric aunts in a small town have mostly avoided using magic themselves. But when Gillian’s vicious boyfriend unexpectedly dies, the women have to figure out how to cover up their involvement in his death before law enforcement catches up with them. But every spell has its cost…

In many ways, Sally and Gillian represent the two paths of witchcraft, known to some as the right-hand and left-hand paths. Where Sally is demure, earthy, and good-intentioned, Gillian is sensual and self-involved, following the creed “do as thou wilt.” But as the plot unfolds, they’ll discover that they’re more similar than they ever imagined, and that spell-work is a delicate and dangerous game with deadly consequences.

4. Jadis/White Witch, Chronicles of Narnia

In The Magician’s Nephew Polly and Digory awaken Jadis, a powerful sorceress who spoke a Deplorable Word that destroyed all life on Charn except her own. Later, she becomes the White Witch and plunges Narnia into an everlasting winter where Christmas never comes. She turns Edmund against his siblings, transforms any dissenters into stone, and ultimately murders Aslan in a hideous sacrifice on the Stone Table.

Knowing C. S. Lewis’ theological leanings, it’s easy to read Jadis as a demonization of the divine feminine–not creation but destruction, her “word” destroying worlds behind her, in contradiction of the “word” of the Big Guy upstairs. She also subverts the maternal instinct, by luring children into her clutches and inciting them to betray their siblings and give into their base desires. (I’ll never look at Turkish Delight the same again!)

5. Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Although she starts out as nothing more than Buffy’s awkward, overall-clad nerdy side-kick, Willow blossoms into one of the most complex female witches in modern media. Although she initially starts learning magic and spells for research, she eventually begins practicing herself, ultimately becoming the Big Bad in Season 6 when tragedy forces her to lose control of her morality.

One of the reasons I love Willow’s arc is that she isn’t born a witch–she chooses to become a witch. Through study and will, she discovers her own inner power and blossoms from sidekick to hero to antihero. I think that’s the wish-fulfillment inherent in a lot of the greatest witch narratives–it shows us what we might be capable if we were able to access the power of spell-work. It also shows us what might happen is that power isn’t used for good, but for evil–even the best of us might be lost in the darkness.

Who are your favorite literary/pop culture witches? Let me know in the comment section below!

Defining Success

Katie Ledecky, winner of 7 Olympic and 15 world championship gold medals.

When my youngest kid was in middle school, he had knee problems. He couldn’t play football, but all that energy needed to go somewhere, so I signed him up for swim team. He went to one regional swim meet and I was impressed (confused? befuddled?) by the sheer number of kids who were rotating in and out of the water. His coaches reinforced the message that the kids weren’t racing each other as much as they were racing themselves. Winning gold was nice, but getting a personal best time was better.

That philosophy fits pretty well with an idea I’ve run across more than once in writing classes, often in terms of inspiration and motivation. We’re told that rather than waste time in jealousy or envy for another author’s success, each author needs to define success for themselves. For example, in a master class at last weekend’s Emerald City Writers’ Conference, Angela James started her presentation by asking each of us to describe what success looks like, and then leave a comment in the chat (we were on zoom) sharing some aspect of it.

People piped right up with comments like, “I’ve figured out what success looks like for three months, six months, and a year.” Which, okay then. LOL. I was happy for them – sincerely – yet there I was, still parsing the question.

See, if you ask me to list my goals for whatever time increment, I can do that, no problem. Weekly, monthly, one year, five year? I got this. (Well, five years might be a little vague.) And generally, I’m pretty good at accomplishing the goals I set for myself – or coming up with a damned good reason why I haven’t.

However, I’m not sure meeting goals and “success” are the same thing.

Clearly they’re related concepts. Checking things off a list feels good, whether it’s this week’s Trello to-do list or January’s goal to publish 4 books this year. And you know, according to the dictionary, that’s success.

So why am I balking? Why do I think success is bigger than just checking things off a list? Why don’t I feel like a success?

I think it’s because whenever I meet a goal, in the next breath I’m already planning the next one. Published 4 books this year? Good for me. What’s on deck for 2022? Pulled off a successful writing conference? Cool. When’s the next one?

I swear if I ever hit the New York Times bestseller list, I’ll immediately start figuring out how to raise the bar.

The thing about goals is they need to be concrete, measurable, and within my control. I’d argue that success is none of those things – unless it’s only about meeting goals. To me, it’s bigger than that. Success is satisfaction and happiness and pride, a complicated emotion that isn’t easily quantified.

I also think that defining success depends on where you focus your lens. The second bullet point in the dictionary definition is “the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.”

And all of those values are relative.

Like, in my day(night) job, I’m a nurse practitioner in the NICU of a major university medical center with a national reputation. Does that make me famous? Probably not, although pretty much everyone in the world of neonatology has heard of my unit. (And if you google the name that’s on my ARNP license, you almost certainly won’t come up with hits about vampire romance. LOL)

Am I a success? Well, this gig is seriously my dream job, the reason I went back to school for a masters degree, and after working in a couple different places, I can honestly say its be the best utilization of the NNP role that I’ve found.

But it’s still a job, and I still have to pump myself up to go to work every night.

My husband and I have owned a house for over 20 years. To someone who’s worried about making rent every month, that might look like success. To me, it looks like unfinished projects and the garden needs work. I’m planning on taking early retirement at age 62, which might look like success, but it’ll only work if I write more books.

And….that might sound like a whole lot of bellyaching, like my cup’s half empty. It’s not. I’m very fortunate and very grateful. In thinking all this through, though, I have reached one conclusion.

If I’m not going to define writing success by meeting goals, there needs to be another way of looking at it. If I take away the goals – the yearly plan, the Trello to-do lists, the orange banners from Amazon – what’s left? The dictionary would say it’s wealth, and yeah, there’s the money, the number of books I sell minus what I spend on production and promotion.

But do I really write books to make money? Maybe a little, although I’m leery of picking a dollar amount to define success, because I can’t truly control how many books I sell. I can put together a good product and do my best to let buyers know it’s available, but I can’t make them buy.

So if I’m not successful because I meet my goals and it’s not about how much money I make, what’s left?

I think for me to be a successful author, it’s about the writing. It’s about being engaged in the process, the nitty-gritty draft and edit and read and learn and polish. It’s bringing characters to life and exploring the world through them, and it’s readers who tell me they love my work. It’s the alchemy of creativity and craft, organizing words into thoughts and recording them with care and attention so they’re telling the story’s truth.

I may not have an Olympic gold medal – or an NYT best seller – but I am writing. And by that measure, I’ve been a lot more successful than I realized.

Organization for Authors: Finding what works

Not my actual workspace….but it could be…

This post is a spin-off of last month’s post, “So many spinning plates! An Author’s Life“. You don’t have to have read that post – I’ll recap the high points here – but if you want to jump over to it, I’ll be here when you get back. 🙂

Here’s the deal. I had a book release on September 4th and I’ll have another one September 23rd. I’m helping organize the Emerald City Writers’ Conference in October, and I’ve also stepped in as president of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter of RWA. (And tbh, I believe in what the the organization is trying to do, but right now supporting RWA is exhausting.)

Also, also, I’m trying to plot the next book in the Soulmates series, and I’ve got research to do – like, two books to read, for starters – for The Pirate’s Vampire (sequel to The Vampire’s Pirate that released last week). And any day now Irene will be sending me the next scene for Benedictus, Book 3 in our Hours of the Night series.

That’s…a lot. (If you have read last month’s post, you might notice I haven’t mentioned the 1950s murder mystery I had on my list. I’ve decided to keep it on the back burner in the interest of honing in on my brand – vampires/paranormal – which is in itself a good subject for a blog post. Maybe I’ll do branding next month.)

You might be wondering how I’m keeping up with it all. Heh. I’m wondering that, myself. There are probably as many ways to stay organized as there are writers, you know? The way I see it, though, a successful approach has to include both the big picture and the daily work in a way that makes sense.

I’ve tried a couple different strategies that didn’t work particularly well. For years, every January I’d come up with a list of goals. I’d use Word or Excel and try to block out what I wanted to get done when.

And then I’d ignore those lists and spend most of the year jumping from thing to thing.

Then 3-ish years ago, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to the use of planners for authors. I bought a pretty, spiral bound notebook planner and actually used it, more or less. I liked that I could make weekly to-do lists, but it still didn’t give me a fluid way of connecting my annual goals to what was happening on a week-to-week basis.

I’m pretty sure that someone in that Facebook group first mentioned Trello. It’s a project management app, and while I probably use about 1/10th of its functionality, that 1/10th is exactly what I need. There are a kajillion different templates for all kinds of business and educational applications, but I use a series of very simple boards.

This is my board for 2021. The far left column is my goals for the year, and I made a column for each month where I broke down those major goals into smaller bites. Scrolling to the right, I can easily see what I’ve accomplished every month and what’s coming up.
I also made a board for each quarter, using the monthly columns in the 2021 plan to come up with the to-do list. I *LOVE* moving cards from the “Doing” column to the “Done” column!
The cards are key! I’ve managed to discipline myself to take time every weekend to come up with a to-do list for the week, breaking up my big goals into smaller and smaller bites.

I don’t know why Trello works for me. Maybe it’s the pretty pictures or the way I can change things with a couple of clicks, but I’ve been more successful using it than any other organization tool I’ve come across. For sure, the phone app makes it easy for me to add to my to-do list when I remember something random and to check things off when I’m not at my laptop. Trello is the easiest way I’ve found to translate goals into action, and I’m pretty danged proud of what I’ve accomplished this year.

If you’ve got a cool organizational tool, leave me a comment. I’m still open to learning something new!

I’m a Biographer, Weeeeee!!!!

(Yes, the title is a Hamilton reference.)

Several years ago I came across the name Virginia Minor when researching my historical novel, Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President in the U.S. in 1872. Because Virginia wasn’t who I was writing about at the time, I noted her as an interesting figure (she is the one from whom Victoria got the idea that the 14th amendment already gave women the right to vote) and moved on.

Virginia Minor

But Virginia wouldn’t let me go. I kept thinking about her and wondering how a woman could come up with such an intelligent and unorthodox theory during a time when college-level education was reserved for men (and a few rich women.) I started researching her and found a few profiles and the more I learned the more I wanted to know. But there was no biography for her.

Well, in 2023 there will be!

I am so thrilled to be sharing her “forgotten” story with the world. The biography is really a dual biography of her and her husband, Francis, because they were “partners in crime” on the subject of suffrage–and equal in all things (which was unusual for their time). However, there is far more information available on Virginia, but I was able to reconstruct a good portion of Francis’ career as a lawyer, as well as his suffrage work.

One of the reasons this book is so important to me is that the way we’re taught about the Suffrage Movement in school is that is was pretty much taken care of by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a handful of other women. But that is far from the truth. The movement was actually progressed by thousands of women of all races and class levels. Writing them back into history is so important to a fuller understanding of the movement and its repercussions to us today.

America’s Forgotten Suffragists is a cradle to grave biography because it is the first one ever written about Virginia and Francis. Among the things you’ll learn about them:

  • Their early lives, education, courtship and wedding.
  • Virginia’s work during the Civil War in the health department and Francis’ work as a war claims agent.
  • Virginia’s founding of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Missouri two years before Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone formed their national organizations.
  • How Virginia and Francis came up with the New Departure (the 14th amendment theory) and argued it through the court system all the way to the Supreme Court.
  • Virginia’s tax revolts (refusing to pay her taxes until women get the vote)
  • Her work with Susan B. Anthony to campaign for women’s suffrage in Nebraska
  • Virgina’s unorthodox funeral and will.
  • Posthumous honors for both

And if you want a little preview, you can visit, which is the companion website to the book.

If you had told me four years ago that I would write and publish a biography, I would have told you you were crazy. I didn’t think I was a good enough writer for non-fiction much less that I had research skills to write a biography from scratch. But when an idea seizes you and doesn’t let go, you follow. And this one gave me two amazing people who now feel like grandparents (a few times great) to me. I hope they will to everyone who reads about them, too.