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

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

Good stuff!

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

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

Dear god I hope my band sounded better than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…if you can’t sing it, you simply have to …. swing it!
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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.

Summer Reads: What’s on YOUR list?

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

Every year.

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

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

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

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

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

Who needs to clean house? Not me…sigh…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Learning to Love…Myself

Today’s post is a little personal and a little vulnerable, so I hope you’ll bear with me. This year has been a bit of a whirlwind for me so far–tight deadlines interspersed with post-debut-year *feelings* punctuated by a few personal crises have made for a bit of a rocky emotional landscape. Now, emotional rollercoasters aren’t something particularly new for me. I’m an empath and a creative and I always feel things pretty strongly.

But something about this year has put me in a bit of a tail-spin. I’ve been stress eating like whoa. When I wasn’t on tight deadline, I binge-watched like 8 seasons of a show I didn’t particularly like just because it let me turn my brain off. More than once, I’ve started off an evening happily having a glass of wine while cooking dinner with hubby, only to drink too much and start crying about nothing. These aren’t normal behaviors for me, but so far they haven’t been problematic enough to raise any crazy red flags.

Until last week, when I walked into the bathroom, looked myself dead in the eye in the mirror, and said out loud: “I hate you.”

Cue record scratch sound.

You’re probably wondering how I got here. Truth is…so am I.

I’ve talked on this blog before about how much of a perfectionist I am. The problem with perfectionism is that it sets up ideals that can never be met, because perfect is impossible. Don’t get me wrong–setting goals is important. It’s a way of marking progress and keeping yourself focused. But when the goals are unattainable…you’re just setting yourself up for failure. And that’s what I do to myself, over and over and over again. I set myself an unattainable goal (whether in my work, my fitness, or my personal relationships), and when I inevitably fail, I punish myself. And then set even stricter goals.

This sets up a spiral of disappointment that leads straight down to self-loathing. And if you tell yourself you hate yourself enough, you start to believe it. And that? That affects every area of your life, not just your mental and physical health.

I think self-love and self-acceptance have been pretty buzzy phrases the past couple of years, especially if you follow more than a handful of so-called influencers on social media. If you’re anything like me, you scroll right past that gorgeous girl in a bikini posing with detox tea while touting self-love–been there, seen that. But the fact is, your relationship with yourself is like any other relationship in your life, in that it takes work.

So, this week I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to mediate my own relationship with myself. Like anything else, I’m a work in progress, and I’m sure these steps won’t change me overnight. But I thought I’d share them in case–like me–you’re struggling with learning to love the most important person in your life: you.

  1. Practice positive self-talk. Since my negative self-talk was the thing that initiated this desire to change my relationship with myself, I’m starting here. Our internal dialogues are more important than we give them credit for. It feels really silly, but sometimes I make myself stand in front of the mirror and, out loud, practice complimenting myself. I practice forgiving myself for my flaws. I practice telling myself I love me. I dare you to try it–it feels weird, but also, very very powerful.
  2. Practice gratitude. As an ambitious person who thrives on external validation, I am constantly moving my own goal-posts. I set a goal (usually an impossible one) and if I miraculously hit it, I immediately shift where the next finish line rests. Sometimes, it’s important to sit down and think about all the things I have, all the things I’m able to do, all the goals I have accomplished already.
  3. Practice mindfulness. I have a hard time sitting still and just being. Oh, I’ve downloaded the meditation apps and the breathing apps, but (shocker) they always make me feel like a failure. So, I’m trying something new. For 5 small minutes each day, I’m just going to sit with myself. No TV, no phone, no music. Just me. I’m going to try to watch my thoughts, feel my emotions, catalog my wants. Not to act on them, but to understand what they are, where they’re coming from, and how I have the capacity to act on them, or not, as I choose.

I’m starting off small. But I hope it’ll help me change in a big way. I’m just a girl, standing in front of herself, asking her to love her. And I think it’ll work out in the end.

Do you ever struggle with self-love? If so, what are your tips for learning to accept yourself? Any advice is appreciated 🙂

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.

History and Storytelling

The Pantheon in Rome

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of visiting Italy with my husband. Although I travelled fairly extensively through Europe in my twenties, somehow I never made it to the land of wine and pasta (with the exception of one short stopover in Sicily where a raging storm kept me and my friend stuck in our hostel for three days straight). It’s been on my travel list for years, so when the opportunity arose, I flung myself bodily upon it.

It was an amazing trip. But one of the reasons Italy has now bumped itself near the top of my favorite-places-in-the-world list came from a somewhat unexpected angle–one that felt more than a little salient to this blog. Italy felt so rich with history–and therefore, stories–that I almost didn’t know what to do with myself.

Who needs armor when you got dat booty?

While I’m no historical scholar, I do know my way around European history. But while touring the various cities we visited in Italy, I found myself nearly overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of history steeped into every inch of the country. In Rome, two thousand year old Imperial ruins abide beside Renaissance basilicas and glossy designer stores. In Tivoli, the rococo grandeur of Villa d’Este stands mere miles from the ancient pleasure palace of Emperor Hadrian. In Umbria, we stayed on an olive-producing estate whose owners once protected Via della Spina, a major arterial road connecting Rome to the Adriatic, used from Etruscan times through the Byzantine Empire. In Venice, the very canals seemed to whisper the astonishing story of a city founded by peasants fleeing Attila the Hun, which would someday become one of the world’s greatest ship-building and mercantile capitals.

Byzantine Mosaics in Ravenna

I don’t write historical fiction. I don’t even really write historical fantasy, although most of my other-world fantasies are in some way informed or inspired by our world’s history. But everywhere I turned in Italy, I felt as though I was touching the edge of some great, palpable history, and I hated that I could only discover so much about each story. Etruscans settling the hills around Rome; the growth of a vast, tumultuous empire where slaves could become emperors; a dissolute, gilded bureaucracy beset by “barbarians”; popes and princes and art and music; a modern legacy of food and fashion and incredible wine. For me, all those periods and stories felt layered on top of one another–a palimpsest place, with fading years etched like ink upon its face. I wanted to read every single line, even the ones lost to time.

As a storyteller, that much history felt incredibly inspiring. I tried to take in as many of those histories and stories as I could–I can only hope that one or several will take root inside me and begin to grow. And if not? I certainly enjoyed the wine, pasta, and sunshine along the way.

Where have you traveled that inspired you with its history or stories?