GRRM and the Three Bears…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoops. That’s another blog post.

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

Why?

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

*ahem*

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a plot Chuck Wendig would love.

Wish me luck!

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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.

It’s time.

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

You can find that post HERE.

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

Yeah, that’s kinda lame.

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

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

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

I am a Nice White Lady.

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

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

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

My own privilege.

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

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

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

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

It’s a sobering thought.

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

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

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

The Benefit of Critiques and Betas

When you first start writing, it is not uncommon to be the only person in your social sphere to be a writer. When you first start out, you often don’t have a writing community yet. Maybe you’ve joined Twitter and started following other writers and maybe you’ve even been brave enough to start joining in on some conversations, but you’re not quite ready to ask people to read your work. Starting out, especially alone, in this world is difficult and scary.

When I wrote my first book, I was the only person I knew writing a book. I wasn’t familiar with the writing community on Twitter–I didn’t even *have* a Twitter account when I started. I went to B&N and bought a copy of Writer’s Market and started following some of my favorite authors’ Facebook pages so I could jump in on Q&A’s and ask them how they got their starts.

But I had no one to read my manuscript–no beta readers or critique partners yet. I asked a couple of friends who liked to read to have a look at it and tell me their thoughts, but totally unsurprisingly they all said they “liked it!” And that was it. One friend was helpful enough to write out a list of typos, which, you know, was helpful but did nothing for the story.

Reader, trust me, that first draft was damn trash. No one should have liked it. And they probably didn’t actually like it, but being my friends and people who’ve never attempted to write a book themselves, they weren’t going to tell me anything was wrong with it.

It took eight drafts to fix that book and sheer luck that my BFF’s new husband’s cousin had a degree in literature and came into my new circle and was willing to try her hand at editing. Which, amazingly, led to her starting Joy Editing and has been my long-time editor ever since.

So, I know what it’s like to need help and not have it. I know what it’s like to try to figure out what is wrong with your masterpiece but not being able or ready to step back from it and look at it with a critical eye. Sure people saying they like your book or think it’s so cool you did that is nice, but you know, deep in you heart that’s not actually helpful.

You need someone else who knows what they’re doing to read your stories before you shop or publish them. You need someone else to say, “yes, I understood the story, it made sense, I followed along, the characters were fully formed, motivations made sense, etc. etc. etc.” Or, “I didn’t really understand the point of the book, the antagonist wasn’t believable as a bad guy, the dialogue felt unrealistic, you mentioned this thing but then never came back to it, that’s not how police procedures work, that one thing you did would actually kill a person but the character didn’t die, how did they just magic their way out of that dangerous situation, why did he fall in love with her she seems terrible, etc. etc. etc.” But we don’t always have the support system we need.

So, I started offering content editing and manuscript critique services. I’ve written my fair share of books and read my fair share of other writers’ WIPs that I have managed to hone my skills enough that I have become pretty good at this, IMHO.

Dropped plot threads, two dimensional characters, lack of motivation, flat dialogue, confusing plot lines, unbelievable magic, you name it and I will hunt it down for you.

And right now, I’m offering a ten percent discount on my services. If you’d like to find out why I’m offering that right now, feel free to bounce on over to my personal blog and have a read.

All you have to do to secure this deal is email me at shaunagranger82 @ gmail . com and mention this blog post. If you’re not ready to have your book read right this minute, you can still get the deal, just reserve your spot and pay a small deposit.

You dream of being a published writer but first, you need to make that manuscript shine…

Rhythm in Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!!

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

The Difficulties of Prolific Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d run out of words. Out of ideas.

So I took some time off.

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

And I felt terrible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck

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

Whatever it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, the usual grind.

Also, lack of sleep.

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

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

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